What does wildlife protection really mean on the ground?

The BBC’s website has recently highlighted an online diary by the Head of Gorilla Monitoring, and the Head of Tourism in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The work of these rangers, and that of their colleagues, is also covered on their own blog, http://www.wildlifedirect.org/blogAdmin/gorilla.

These rangers have the onerous responsibility of ensuring the protection of the endangered mountain gorillas that live in the Virunga Park in the Eastern DRC, a region that has, since the late 1990s, been engulfed by a conflict that has seen hundreds of thousands of people killed and displaced. The work of these men is nothing short of phenomenal as they study and monitor the gorillas, run public education programmes, prosecute incursions into the park, and combat poaching – all in the midst of serious and sustained violence that sees them and their families risking their lives on an almost daily basis. One of their key challenges is negotiating continued access to the gorillas in the context of a constantly shifting landscape of control by the rebel and government forces in the area.

The mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park are ostensibly subject to both international and national-level protection. The CITES agreement and the recent treaty under the auspices of the UN Convention on Migratory Species both prohibit the sale of gorilla products, and call for active co-ordination from regional governments to combat the killing of the great apes and protect their habitats. National DRC legislation dating from 1969 also designates the gorillas as a protected species, while providing additional protection in designating the area a national park, in theory prohibiting its regular use and habitation by people.

Yet for all this formal international and national protection, the experiences of the rangers of the Virunga National Park show that while the legislative frameworks are important, the continued survival of the gorillas in the Eastern Congo ultimately relies on the ongoing commitment and bravery of these game rangers.