The Congo park ranger putting his life on the line for wildlife

Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo risked death when he went undercover to gather information about bribery and corruption in the Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Having won a prestigious environmental prize, he has now set his sights on another challenge

When the new park director first set foot in Upemba National Park – the Democratic Republic of Congo’s third largest national park – in October 2015, all he could find was a rusty bicycle and a handful of AK-47 bullets. Some park rangers were busy poaching what little wildlife was left, while some of their supervisors were getting rich allowing the illegal mining of coltan and tinstone under the protection of the Mai Mai Bakata Katanga – the local militia group infamous for mass rape, murder and the recruitment of child soldiers.

Elephants, which were emblematic of the park, had been poached on a massive scale by the rangers themselves, the military, the police, the locals and the Mai Mai – and those who had escaped the slaughter, had left the park. Once a safe haven for Congo’s last remaining zebra population, Upemba was then only home to 54.

A herd of zebras in Upemba. Image: Rodrigue Katembo/ICCN Upemba

“I was distraught,” remembers Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, the 42-year-old park director. “Local people believe the park belongs to the rangers, but the park belongs to the Congolese people and to the international community,” he tells Positive News during a recent visit to London, one of his rare forays away from Upemba.

He speaks in French, in a measured way, sounding more like the civil servant he always wanted to be than the brave ranger who has risked his life many times to protect Congo’s parks. Upemba rangers are poor – they receive only a pittance from the government, about $35 (£27) a month – so they often rely on the park’s resources to survive. But, says Katembo, “when you work in conservation, you cannot take any of the park’s animals, plants or minerals, even for your own survival. You need to set an example. It is the only way to convince the international community to support Upemba.”

His first task as director was to work on the attitudes of the men working for him, and replace those caught poaching, selling land or allowing mining. “I told them: ‘If you slaughter the last 54 zebras, you’ll have food for a few weeks, but there won’t be any zebras left. Nobody will ever visit or talk about Upemba, and we’ll remain poor and forgotten.’”

If you slaughter the last 54 zebras, you’ll have food for a few weeks, but there won’t be any zebras left

But he also emphasised an urgent need for funds to train his warden into ‘eco-guards’, to pay them better wages, to be able to offer incentives to reward best practices, and to be able to afford basic surveillance and security equipment.

Re-introducing elephants into Upemba

When Upemba National Park was created in 1939 by the Belgian colonial power in Congo’s south-eastern Katanga province, it was a jewel in the African wildlife crown. Spanning 12,000sq km, the park’s high-plateau savannah, deep gorges, huge waterfalls and rich forests were teeming with some of the world’s most abundant and diverse wildlife. It included lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and the Katanga impala, which is endemic to the park. It was also the only national park in the Congo with zebra and cheetah populations.

But times have changed. Since the 1960s, the number of animals has plummeted at an alarming rate due to civil war, poaching, mining and deforestation, which intensified in the 1990s and still plagues the park today.

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As the park’s resources are extremely limited – Upemba only has 160 rangers when at least 400 are needed to protect it, and they are outnumbered and out-resourced by the Mai Mai Bakata Katanga militia – Katembo has decided to focus first on restoring the emblematic species. His rangers have recorded 173 elephants in the vast territories surrounding the park – the very last surviving forest elephants in the whole of Katanga. Some 60 rangers, funded for six months by International Union for Conservation of Nature – Netherlands (UICN-NL) and the Swiss-based Fondation Ségre, have already managed to return 68 elephants into the park and boost the zebra population to 72. Under Katembo’s watch, no elephants have been poached inside nor the near-outside of the park since April 2016.

Park rangers on patrol in Upemba. Image: Rodrigue Katembo/ICCN Upemba

The rangers are now trying to reintroduce another herd of 105 elephants, which has been spotted in a swampy region some 170km north of the park. “These are very remote, bare territories,” says Katembo.

“The lakes there are empty and people are hungry, so they all hunt elephants with heavy weapons. They believe it is their only source of proteins. Even young children, those no older than four, shoot the elephants with large-calibre rifles when they cross the river.”

I speak to Tina Lain, project lead on wildlife crime at IUCN NL, who has worked with Katembo since 2012. “One of the things that strikes me most of Rodrigue’s work is that he is not only 100 per cent committed to the rule of law, but he is also very close to the people and communities in and around the park,” she says.

“Many times in DRC you hear about ‘conservation policière’ versus ‘conservation communautaire’. Rodrigue has found a very interesting balance between making people respect the law, but also communicating, understanding and getting close to communities, and earning their respect by his integrity.”

Fighting the Mai Mai and illegal mining

The biggest threat to the elephants, the park’s biodiversity and the rangers’ security is posed by illegal mining and the Mai Mai militia, who have taken over parts of the park and have already established six villages there.

In direct contravention of national and international laws, high-ranking military and even members of the government have issued illegal permits to mining companies in the national park. Protected by the Mai Mai, they extract mostly cassiterite (tinstone) and coltan – a mineral that is used extensively in the electronics industry and considered more valuable than gold. So far, Katembo and his men have closed down eight illegal mines and removed more than 1,400 small-scale miners. But seven active mines in the park remain.

In addition to making money from guarding the mines, the Mai Mai depend heavily on poaching elephants, selling ivory to traffickers in cities around Upemba, as well as in neighbouring Zambia. These militia are ruthless, heavily armed and far better equipped than the park rangers, who only have one truck to patrol the vast Upemba – an area just slightly smaller than Wales. And at the moment it is broken.

Katembo talking to park rangers in Upemba. Image: ICCN Upemba

Fighting the Mai Mai and other armed poachers requires courage, discipline and a good strategy, says Katembo. “If we know that an armed group is shooting elephants, zebras or lions, we prepare a ‘shock patrol’. We need three rangers for each poacher and enough food rations to last 10 days.”

The men also pack their weapons, tarpaulins or tents, GPS, binoculars, a mobile phone and a medical kit. Cigarettes and alcohol are prohibited. “They walk slowly, very slowly without making any noise. They develop sharp ears and a good sense of observation. They can read footprints and tracks,” says Katembo.

The rangers need to approach the militia without being spotted, as poachers won’t hesitate to kill them. “We only fire if they have heavy weapons, and we follow international humanitarian laws.”

Of particular worry to Katembo at the moment is a particular group of 25 heavily armed Mai Mai poachers. “If we cannot contain them, they’ll keep spreading, and protecting the park will be impossible. But we cannot shoot as they often have women and children among them.”

Katembo’s tactic is instead to try to ambush the militia at the spots where they go fishing, hunting or mushroom picking.

One of the most dangerous jobs in conservation

“Every day, we are risking our lives doing this job,” Katembo notes matter-of-factly. Indeed, since starting work at Upemba, the park director has fought off armed militia and faced death threats trying to stop illegal mining. He lives apart from his wife and children for their safety.

Katembo was transferred to Upemba from Virunga National Park, where he worked previously, for his safety. The move followed death threats, imprisonment and a mock execution, as well as the attempted assassination in April 2014 of Emmanuel de Mérode, Virunga’s park director.

We are protecting unique wildlife, local populations’ livelihood and Congo’s natural heritage – which is also the heritage of the whole world

Just a few weeks ago, Katembo travelled to San Francisco where he was awarded a Goldman environmental prize – a sort of Nobel prize for environmental activists. He won the prize for risking his life while exposing illegal oil exploration in Virunga – a Unesco world heritage site and home to a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas.

Katembo’s undercover investigations exposed corruption at the highest levels and helped force British oil company Soco International to abandon oil exploration in the park. The footage he gathered during his undercover investigations was featured in the documentary film Virunga.

Katembo in Upemba National Park. Image: Tina Lain

“Corruption stories like this happen all too often, but capturing people incriminating themselves on camera is incredibly rare,” says Nathaniel Dyer, leader of the Congo team at Global Witness, an independent, not-for-profit organisation that carries out investigations to expose environmental and human rights abuses.

“In spite of the massive risks to his own safety, Rodrigue showed great courage and nerve, wearing hidden cameras and recording equipment to provide incontrovertible evidence. Rodrigue has great integrity and commitment – and he is seemingly fearless. Having been offered bribes, both on and off camera, he chose to value his dedication to nature over material rewards and I am full of admiration for him.”

He chose to value his dedication to nature over material rewards and I am full of admiration for him

Protecting Congo’s national parks is widely recognised as one of the most dangerous jobs in conservation. Over the past 20 years, more than 160 of Katembo’s park ranger colleagues have been killed.

“I am not special,” replies Katembo, simply. “Yes, I was imprisoned and tortured, but many guards have died doing their jobs. We need to respect their work. We need to be willing to defend what they have died to protect. By protecting the park, we are protecting unique wildlife, local populations’ livelihood and Congo’s natural heritage – which is also the heritage of the whole world.”

Featured image: Rodrigue Katembo. Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

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