Two days ago, the brother of a friend of ours, Emmanuel De Merode was shot in an ambush while returning to his home within Africa’s oldest national park, the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mercifully his injuries, though serious, are not life threatening. He had just delivered a dossier to the local government office in Goma in response to Soco Oil’s Block V licence to explore for oil and gas within an area occupied by the park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I had not anticipated on just my second post to be interrupting normal service to bring such a bulletin, but ever since meeting Emmanuel last summer I had been mulling over the possibility of writing about this remarkable area, famously home to a quarter of the world’s precariously small population of mountain gorillas. Several angles seemed to present themselves and photography was an obvious one; the grandeur and diversity of this 7,800 sq. km landscape with its lakes, mountains, dense forests and active volcanoes; the struggles of the local population, the rangers and animals who occupy it; the dramatic and terrifying photographs by Brent Stirton, who made a documentary of the park for National Geographic Television - all presented a case. As did of course the gorillas themselves, with their close family units and like us, their dependence on a safe and productive environment to prosper and raise their young. There was always going to be much material to choose from.
However, the recent dramatic events prompted me to simply issue a plea to raise awareness of the park and of the remarkable efforts the staff and rangers go to in protecting it, often in the face of great danger. I would urge you to visit the Virunga National Park website to see the facts for yourself and get a feel for the challenges that need to be faced in this notoriously difficult region. There you will also find cause for some celebration, among them the support of the international community and conservation agencies, the dedication of the rangers, the environmental and economic initiatives of the Virunga Alliance, which promotes sustainable development over unsustainable mineral extraction.
Back at home at the micro level, you could say that leafing through an old family album and dwelling a little on the past is just misty-eyed nostalgia but I argue we look back to remind ourselves of the things that we value and that need to be conserved for the future. Family photographs allow us to hold a moment, perhaps remember a relative or relive a childhood holiday or family tradition and enable us to carry that moment, pay that love even, forward - if it’s missing, we lose a tiny bit of heritage. At a global scale, the last great wildernesses are a vital part of our collective heritage. We can’t just record them and leave them in the past, we have to care for them and take them forward intact - to lose any would be nothing short of a catastrophe for our future generations.
We wish Emmanuel a speedy recovery.
As a postscript, I was excited to hear a couple of days after publishing this post that the feature documentary film, "Virunga" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it received a standing ovation. You can see the trailer here.