(BONUS) The Congo

An attempted assassination of the warden of Africa’s oldest national park reveals to the world the dangers and violence lurking inside one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.

The Episode

Hi park enthusiasts,

I’m your host Delia D’Ambra and the story I have for you today is probably the biggest and longest spanning tale of predatory behavior I’ve ever heard about in a national park.

It takes place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park.

This story is complicated because there isn’t just one perpetrator or isolated crime. This tale includes uncountable crimes…everything from murder…animal poaching…terrorism…bribery…and illegal resource mining.

It’s a doozy. But the reason I wanted to cover it as the last episode of this season is because I think it’s important that I use the platform this show has gained to feature cases in non-English-speaking countries…Countries that admire and cherish their national parks just as much as residents of North America do…but who face obstacles and challenges far beyond what those of us in the US or Canada could even imagine.

The first thing you need to know about the D-R-C is that according to BBC News Monitoring it has a population of nearly 90 million people and is considered the most natural resource rich country in the world.

The United Nations has recognized D-R-C as THE main home for vast deposits of diamonds, gold, copper, tin, lead, coal, oil, and other precious metals,

Every year billions of dollars’ worth of natural resources are mined in this country and exported across the world. But what’s wild is that despite all that money being made…most of the people living in the D-R-C are among the poorest on the planet.

Injustices of slave trade and forced colonization back in 16th and 17th centuries created deep divides in the nation and in 1960 the country was hurled into a state of unrest, despite gaining its independence.

Since 1997 ongoing civil war and rebellions over political elections have left the country marred by violence and murder.

Caught right in the middle of all that turmoil is Virunga National Park— what many people consider to be heaven on earth in terms of its range of ecosystems and animal species.

The park spans more than 3,000 square miles and has forest…savanna…volcanic and jungle topography you can’t help but marvel at.

But beneath and across of all that beauty is a blanket of horrific violence that has left hundreds of Congolese park rangers dead and some of the rarest species of wildlife executed…all in the pursuit of greed.

This is Park Predators.

Late in the afternoon on April 15th, 2014, 44-year-old Emmanuel de Merode was driving from the Congolese city of Goma back to his office inside Virunga National Park’s headquarters about 30 miles North of Goma…when he suddenly stopped about ten miles short of his destination.

There, standing in front of him in the middle of the unpaved roadway were three men holding assault rifles. One of them had the barrel of his gun pointed directly at Emmanuel’s windshield.

This kind of threat was something Emmanuel knew was unavoidable. He’d yet to experience a full-on encounter like this…but because he knew he worked in a high-crime part of the country; he’d come prepared. He had an AK-47 rifle in his passenger seat next to him and slowly inched his hand toward it to protect himself.

Emmanuel was the director and chief warden of Virunga National Park…and ever since he’d taken the job six years earlier in 2008, he knew this day was bound to come. Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and touches borders with the D-R-C, Rwanda and Uganda.

Verbal threats on Emmanuel’s life were common. At nearly every turn with his work to conserve resources and animal species inside the park as well as attempt to oust militia groups from the region Emmanuel had seen Virunga met with extreme acts of violence including the murders of dozens of park rangers, ongoing incidents of poaching, and illegal resource extraction.

According to reporting by Men’s Journal, within seconds of stopping his Land Rover SUV a few yards from the men with guns, Emmanuel heard and saw the group fire their weapons. As bullets flew through his windshield and engine block, Emmanuel laid sideways on his front seat and slammed his foot on the accelerator attempting to bulldoze through the three men and their gunfire.

That effort didn’t last long though, because several rifle rounds had punched through the front end of Emmanuel’s SUV, killing the engine almost immediately. After letting his vehicle roll to a stop, a short distance from the men who were shooting at him, Emmanuel made a quick dash out of his driver’s side door, with his AK-47 in hand, and ran towards the cover of some nearby trees in the jungle.

While he was running away—his attackers kept firing and struck Emmanuel in his chest and stomach.

About 100 feet into the tree line, Emmanuel stopped running because he was bleeding badly and looked back to see if he was being followed. No one seemed to be chasing him…but just for good measure he fired every bullet out of his AK 47 towards the roadway he’d come from, until the gun jammed multiple times.

After that, he sat alone in the jungle bleeding from his wounds for what felt like hours but was actually closer to 30 minutes. His breathing became more and more labored, and Emmanuel began to worry that one of his lungs had been punctured. On top of that, he had a searing pain in his ribcage that would not go away.

When the impact of his injuries eventually became too much to bear, he felt sure that the rifle round he’d taken to his chest was wreaking havoc on his lungs…but until he could get some help he didn’t know for sure.

With the little bit of strength that he had left, Emmanuel forced himself up and back out to the roadway he’d come from. The men who’d assaulted him were long gone and the first car he saw, he flagged down.

The driver DIDN’T stop though. It’s just my assumption here but I have to think the driver was probably fearful of Emmanuel’s appearance—covered in blood—and that’s why they refused to pull over and help.

The next vehicle that came along was a guy on a motorbike who agreed to strap Emmanuel to the back and drive him to a nearby village where there was a Congolese military truck. The location of the truck was back towards Goma which is where Emmanuel knew he needed to get to in order to have any chance at receiving REAL medical treatment.

According to Men’s Journal, unfortunately, the military truck at the village was not equipped with medical supplies or gas…and it eventually broke down. Emmanuel was transported to another military truck after that…but just like the first one, that vehicle broke down too.

After several hours of being moved to and from different trucks and cars and bumping along rural roads in the Congolese forest…Emmanuel eventually made it to a hospital in Goma.

When he arrived, he quickly learned he needed to have surgery to remove the bullets in his chest and stomach…BUT…the surgeon and the medical staff who were going to be operating on him were from different volunteer aid organizations and spoke different languages. Some of them only spoke French and others only spoke English. So, even though they were able to talk to Emmanuel, who was fluent in both languages, they were unable to communicate with one another.

Emmanuel’s only option to save his life was to become an interpreter for his doctors DURING HIS OWN EMERGENCY SURGERY!

Seriously… can you even imagine? Being wide awake while having bullets removed from your body…and translating for the physicians about how they were going to need to work together to save you.

So wild.

Anyway, Emmanuel spent four days recovering in Goma before being flown to another hospital in Kenya where he spent three more days recuperating. BBC News reported that doctors determined a bullet had pierced one of his lungs and another had shattered several of his ribs. Somehow though, all his vital organs had been spared.

By April 22nd—eight days after being shot—Emmanuel walked out of his Kenyan hospital room fully recovered and reportedly holding his own IV bag.

Talk about a guy who’s tough as nails…

News of his attempted murder hit local and global headlines pretty quickly with The Associated Press, BBC News and The Guardian all reporting that the circumstances surrounding the assault and who might have been responsible were suspicious…if not downright, murky.

Some sources speculated the ambush was the act of an independent rebel militia group just wanting to strike back at the park rangers of Virunga National for barring human activity within the boundary of the park…but others suggested the attack had been a result of a larger, much darker plot…

Several publications pointed fingers at suspected shadowy figures from large oil corporations that were hell bent on extracting raw petroleum and other natural resources from Virunga National Park. These individuals would have wanted nothing more than to see Emmanuel, a staunch conservationist, gone for good.

Emmanuel himself didn’t confirm or deny any such rumors though.

He released an official statement through the park service saying in part, quote—“Unfortunately the attack is not an uncommon incident for Virunga National Park. Our rangers are targeted frequently due to their difficult work in protecting the park and its many valuable resources. They continue to face such risks to restore peace and the rule of law to the area and the people in their care. I have been made aware that a full investigation is now underway by the appropriate legal authorities, and I have confidence in the process that’s been initiated by the Congolese authorities. For my part I have no indication as to who may have engineered this attack and would respectfully ask that others refrain from speculation prior to the findings of the enquiry. I hope to recover very soon. I am looking forward to getting back to my work with renewed vigor.” -end quote.

Despite not outright accusing any one particular group for what had happened to him…Emmanuel remained adamant that whoever was behind the attack was NOT going to throw him off his mission.

He intended to see all the park projects and conservation efforts he wanted to accomplish, materialize.

But the lingering doubt about who could be behind his attempted assassination remained in the global press…and slowly but surely bits of information started seeping out about what had REALLY been going inside Virunga National Park.

According to Damon Tabor’s reporting for an article in Men’s Journal, violence against park rangers and wildlife in Virunga really started escalating in the mid 2000’s.

In 2004, the guy who was the park’s director before Emmanuel took over was reported to be corrupt.

Some source material stated that the old warden paid off his own rangers to purposefully ignore illegal charcoal mining and trading operations. In return for allowing militia groups to extract the precious resource, the warden and any complicit rangers would get paid on the side.

Between 2004 and 2007 things had gotten so bad in the park that rare wildlife species were getting caught in the middle and being killed… Most notably, the native mountain gorillas that are iconic to the park.

According to BBC News, about 80 percent of the planet’s remaining mountain gorillas lived in Virunga National Park at the time. To this day that is still the case.

In 2007 multiple news outlets reported that a well-known male silverback gorilla that had been photographed by publications for decades and four females that familied with him were massacred. The images of their sprawled out, bullet-ridden carcasses were splashed all over newspapers worldwide and public outrage ensued.

The Institute for Congolese Conservation of Nature also known as ICCN, which is the overarching entity that the Virunga Park rangers are housed under, launched a formal investigation to figure out why so many gorillas had been slaughtered.

After looking into the incident, what they found was that the people responsible for killing the primates were NOT killing them for their meat, fur or to steal their babies, which apparently sold at a very high black-market price. —Instead, the poachers were executing the gorillas because the animals made the land where natural resources existed inaccessible.

Basically, for charcoal smugglers to access the forests and get the resource they wanted, they had to eliminate the most dangerous threat in their path…which were families of wild gorillas.

Emmanuel told National Geographic that the gorilla killings were also considered a targeted message to park rangers meant to discourage them from trying to protect the park and enforce anti-extraction laws.

Essentially, it was militia groups’ way of saying…’hey, if you don’t stop preventing us from mining what we want and transporting it out of the park…we’re going to kill the precious animals you love and are sworn to protect.’

It’s truly messed up when you think about it.

By August of 2008, public outcry over the gorilla killings had reached a fever pitch and the warden who’d been directing the park before Emmanuel took over ended up being loosely tied to the violent act. Most of the source material I found though says that that guy was never prosecuted.

Thankfully, he did eventually get removed from his position as the park’s director and just a few months later, Emmanuel took over as warden.

Within a month of Emmanuel accepting the role though, things went from bad to worse. A group of rebels stormed the park’s headquarters and occupied it for several weeks. Eventually the Congolese military bombed the buildings, and a lot of the rebels were driven out, but they still held the high ground within the boundary of the park.

For months, rangers who’d fled the compound when it was attacked were forced to live in the jungle and slowly got sick or died from disease or starvation. Emmanuel acted at that point and brokered a deal with the warlord that was leading the rebel group.

The arrangement that they came to allowed park staff to enter the forest and rescue any surviving rangers and conduct a population survey of remaining mountain gorillas. The warlord who’d taken over promised that militia groups would stop killing the animals and for a short time, there was a slight sense of peace.

But the absence of unrest didn’t last for long though. Eventually more militia groups came into the region and began warring with one another for resource territory in the park. Once again, caught in the middle were native wildlife species and park rangers.

Emmanuel had made it his mission after becoming the park’s director to beef up rangers’ ability to combat illegal activities and violent fighters crossing over into the park’s boundary. He ensured that rangers received proper military training, had better equipment, could utilize aircraft during patrols and were aided by military support when possible.

Men’s Journal reported that he raised rangers’ wages from five dollars an hour to 200 dollars an hour and equipped them with tactical gear that would help them survive fire fights in the jungle.

By 2012, gun battles between a militia group known as M23 and park rangers waged daily. BBC News reported that hundreds of civilians were killed in the crossfire and the violence got so bad that the park closed to all visitors for almost a year.

In addition to bullets flying and bombs going off all the time inside the park…a new threat had emerged that Emmanuel told news reporters was of even greater concern to him.

Big oil corporations.

In 2011—a year before the violence had gotten really bad— Emmanuel had secured funding for a hydroelectric power plant to be built on the park’s eastern boundary.

The goal of the project was to create power from the park’s natural rivers and deliver it in a sustainable way to hundreds of thousands of impoverished people. The power plant would also create more than 100,000 jobs.

The Congolese people would have an opportunity for employment that they’d never had before…the ability to work for legitimate wages instead of working for militia groups who were illegally siphoning resources from Virunga or being contracted to do violent acts for organizations that wanted to see the park’s resources made more accessible.

Several news outlets at the time reported that militia groups dwindling in size and losing power was a reality big oil corporations interested in coming into the area DID NOT WANT to see happen.

BBC News and Men’s Journal reported that starting in 2006, two large oil companies from Europe had been interested in drilling on land in eastern Congo.

One was a French company named Total and the other was a London-based company called Soco International. Both companies had been awarded permits to conduct surveys on blocks of land in the Congo to see if oil reserves existed. Portions of those blocks of land overlapped with the boundary of Virunga National Park.

As anticipated, preliminary seismic surveys showed promising signs that lots of oil was beneath a lake in the northern section of the park called Lake Edward.

Thanks to resistance from environmentalist groups, by 2012, Total had pulled out and decided to stop its oil drilling efforts in Virunga.

Soco International on the other hand had not been so quick to volunteer to back off.

The company reportedly spent millions of dollars to survey an oil reserve beneath Lake Edward. The reserve was said to house 2.5 billion barrels of oil which Damon Tabor reported was more oil than existed in North America’s largest reserve in Alaska.

Essentially, it was a petroleum jackpot.

Throughout 2011 and into 2012, Emmanuel had heard reports from his rangers that white men had been mysteriously appearing at the park’s entrances claiming to be from Soco or subsidiary companies owned by Soco. The men had told rangers that the Congolese authorities had authorized them to survey Lake Edward for oil.

Emmanuel and his staff had not liked the men’s approach or lack of legitimate paperwork proving their claims and repeatedly turned them away.

In the end of 2012, Emmanuel had compiled a list of incidents involving suspected Soco spies and employees who’d forced their way into the park using military escorts.

During this time, he partnered with a British filmmaker to expose the company as a real threat to the national park.

According to the Netflix film, Virunga, for a year and half the film’s production crew along with investigative journalists wore hidden cameras and collected damning videos and audio recordings of Soco tied businessmen and corrupt Congolese officials meeting in secret to discuss how the company was willing to pay off rebel militia groups to create routes within the park that Soco’s mining surveyors could use.

On the day Emmanuel was shot—April 15th 2014—he’d been returning from delivering his full investigative report to the national park’s team of lawyers in Goma about Soco’s actions.

Whether or not the assassins who attempted to murder Emmanuel that day in the jungle were hired by Soco has never been proven.

After the attempt on Emmanuel’s life, the Netflix documentary released at the Tribeca Film Festival and the whole world got to see the criminal and violent events that had been taking place inside the park.

In the wake of the film’s impact, Soco released an official statement denying any accusations of bribery or involvement in Emmanuel’s attempted murder. The company said quote—“Soco does not condone violence of any kind and makes it clear that any suggestion linking Soco to this crime is completely unfounded, defamatory and highly inappropriate. Payments to rebel groups have never been nor will ever be sanctioned”—end quote.

According to reporting by The Independent, after 2015 Emmanuel started traveling in an armor-plated Land Rover with several guards always escorting him. He rarely left the boundary of the park and only got to see his wife and children a few times a year at their home in Kenya.

He’s told news reporters that even though the circumstances of his life and the demands of his position as the park’s director weren’t ideal…he was committed to his lifestyle because he believed in the work he was doing to conserve Virunga and keep violence in the region to a minimum.

The nearly 800 park rangers who worked under him faced the same threats Emmanuel did…but they were definitely more on the front lines.

According to a BBC News article published in 2014, since 1996 more than 130 park rangers had been murdered in the line of duty while patrolling in the park.

Emmanuel told The National Geographic Society that the total number of dead rangers was actually far higher than 130 because during the late 1990s and early 2000’s the park was not keeping track of when rangers would disappear into the forest —never to be seen alive again.

He said that dozens of rangers died on the job or were killed by militia groups and those deaths simply went unreported.

Over time, the total death toll of Virunga rangers has steadily climbed.

In April and May of 2018 alone, at least eight rangers were gunned down in separate incidents while on duty. An official statement from the park said that all of the dead rangers were between 20 and 30 years old. They each had children and families of their own.

One of them, a female ranger who was just one of 26 women working on the force, had been killed while protecting two British tourists and their driver who were traveling near the Northern border of the park.

BBC News reported that those two tourists’ names were Bethan Davies and Robert Jesty. They’d been the only people to survive the roadside attack and were kidnapped and held for ransom. The publication reported that eventually Bethan and Robert’s captors released them, but park officials never confirmed ‘on the record’ if their families or the British government ever paid ransom to their abductors.

Immediately following the couple’s kidnapping UK.GOV posted a travel advisory warning all citizens to avoid traveling to the Congo until the Congolese government communicated that it was safe to do so.

The advisory said quote – “the risk of kidnap or injury as a result of armed or criminal activity remains high. UK government staff is not always in the area and the British embassy’s ability to offer consular assistance could be severely limited”—end quote.

In the wake of so many rangers being killed, and tourists being taken hostage in the summer of 2018, Emmanuel De Merode closed Virunga national park to all tourism.

That move caused a major problem for the park…one that to this day remains nearly insurmountable…

By closing Virunga National Park in 2018, the park service lost nearly a quarter of its income that year.

According to BBC News, just one mountain gorilla guided tour cost $400…and if you wanted to stay in the park at a designated, ranger-protected shelter you had to pay a minimum of $300 a night. So, you can see where closing the park to tourism really created a dent in Virunga’s finances.

A huge chunk of the park’s budget supported sanctuaries for the mountain gorillas. Handfuls of orphaned gorillas whose parents had been poached or were killed in the massacre of 2007 were living in sanctuaries run by park staff members. The cost to keep those havens running was NOT cheap.

On top of that…reporting that came out in 2019 raised doubt about how park rangers and staff were treating residents who either intentionally or mistakenly conducted resource harvesting in the park.

Because of the constant threat of violence towards rangers…and the ongoing smuggling of natural resources, some conservation researchers have said there has been a noticeable shift in how park staff interacted and dealt with people they’d catch illegally accessing natural resource in the park.

According to a blog by the Knowledge Management Fund and Knowledge Platform Security and Rule of Law, surveys conducted in 2019 with residents living in 11 villages surrounding the park showed that most citizens who were impoverished said the park’s enforcement efforts had gotten harsher and harsher over the years.

The article said that locals lamented about how the park rangers were arresting people merely on suspicion of being associated with a militia group or illegally extracting natural resources. Fines for infractions had skyrocketed and arrests had gotten more physical and violent.

Park officials repeatedly denied those claims saying that upholding the human rights of Congolese citizens during arrests was always a priority.

Whatever the case may be for how park rangers interacted with locals, the fact remains that rangers have STILL been dying in record numbers inside the park.

According to a press release from park officials, in 2019 13 rangers were killed by rebels in an ambush attack while on patrol.

A year after that, in 2020, while the park was closed to visitors due to the COVID 19 pandemic…at least seven rangers were slaughtered in two separate blitz attacks. Caught in the crossfire were handfuls of civilians.

As recently as 2021, the death toll has continued to rise.

At least six rangers were killed while on duty in the park in January of that year and violence against non-park staff continued as well.

According to BBC News and Reuters, Italy’s ambassador to the D-R-C, a 43-year-old man named Luca Attanasio, was brutally murdered on February 22nd, 2021, when a group of rebels ambushed his vehicle.

Luca was traveling right outside of Goma to a small village near the park as part of a UN Food Program convoy. News reports stated that six armed fighters surrounded his entourage and began firing assault weapons.

The rebels shot Luca who was riding in the passenger seat of a Hum V and they killed his bodyguard and driver.

Italian authorities told news outlets that the motive for the attack appeared to be an attempted kidnapping…but instead of grabbing Luca and using him for ransom, the militia group had killed him, likely by accident.

The United Nations told Reuters that the terrorists behind all of the killings were suspected to belong to what’s called the Mai-Mai which is a term for more than 100 different rebel militant factions that are products of civil wars in eastern Congo as well as Rwanda.

As of 2021, Virunga National Park has roughly 690 male and female rangers working to protect natural resources, animal species, tourists and innocent civilians who traverse the park to get to and from their homes.

Every day their efforts are met with violence and casualties.

Something that stuck with me after researching and writing this story is just the sheer bravery of the men and women who work in Virunga …including Emmanuel De Merode.

According to the Independent, Emmanuel could have a completely different life for himself if he wanted to. His family is made up of Belgian aristocrats, and he comes from unlimited wealth.

According to some sources, he’s technically considered a prince far down the chain of Belgium’s noble bloodline.

But instead of living in one of his family’s many estates and castles or pursuing a career in a lucrative trade…he’s chosen to work in the jungles of the Congo, fighting for people and animals that he loves.

He’s a white man who since the early 1990’s has been operating in a world that looks and feels entirely different than his upbringing. Globe News Wire reported in 2016 that since Emmanuel took over as the park’s director the mountain gorilla population in Virunga has doubled in size.

He’s a man who’s accomplished a lot… faced true predators head-on in multiple dangerous arenas…and lived to tell about it on the world stage.

For that, I think he deserves some serious credit.

Park Predators is an audiochuck original show.

So, what do you think chuck, do you approve? *howl*