I came out of my room and a park ranger was standing just outside the door with an AK-47 in his hands.
“You don’t have to worry, Monsieur, the base is totally secured,” he said.
I actually wasn’t worried at all: I just wanted to have a nice cold beer before going to bed.
Park Ranger Janvier (who didn’t give his last name) and I started taking a walk around the base, toward the only spot where there was decent phone reception. I asked him what he was defending me — and the base — against. Was it Mai-Mai rebels? Poachers? Bandits?
“There are almost no more rebels in the area, sir,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’re safe here. We just need to be ready: the enemy can strike any time.”
It’s hard to get a grasp on what exactly threatens the park, the rangers, and the villagers, since the park’s communication policy is to talk as little as possible and avoid sensitive topics such as insecurity.
No need to scare tourists — and money — away.
But the truth is that security is still an issue in South Kivu, where Kahuzi-Biega National Park is located. The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been a hotbed of violence over the past 20 years, and the park’s 2,316 square miles of thick jungle are complicated to secure.
The area is still recovering from two wars, thousands of refugees, countless rebel groups, and decades of violence.
During a week in Kahuzi-Biega to photograph the rare Grauer’s Gorilla, I was escorted by half a dozen armed guards every single day. The park is home to the last stronghold of Grauer’s Gorillas in the world, a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla, which was recently listed as critically endangered.
Park rangers repeatedly told me when they took me out on patrols to look for gorillas that they were “only taking precautions” and that it was all “safe.” Such a statement is hard to believe when five to eight rangers at a time escorted me daily. I even remember a day when 12 rangers took me on patrol to the park’s waterfalls, where few tourists ever go. Each of the 12 park rangers was armed with an AK-47.
Yet the day after I left the park, one of the many daily patrols got caught in an ambush. Park ranger Munganga Nzonga Jacques was shot dead. Jacques was one of Kahuzi-Biega’s 250 rangers who crisscross the park every day in order to protect the gorillas, 24 hours a day, for a salary of just $60 — $145 a month.
The attack that took Jacques’ life was the third in six months — two of which were fatal. Upon returning to the park a few weeks later, no one would talk to me about the incident.
Kahuzi-Biega’s rangers are a unique group. On a daily basis, many are so poor that they don’t have resources to carry water with them on their hours-long patrols over difficult terrain. They say little — about their work, their lives, or their opinion of the Grauer Gorillas.
Yet when off duty, they sometimes speak their mind.
I asked one ranger how many times he has seen the gorillas.
“I’ve never seen them,” he replied flatly.