Innocent Mburanumwe, Conservation Ranger

Protecting Endangered Gorillas From Murderous Poachers

Founded in 1925, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been called the jewel in the crown of Africa’s nature reserves. Inside its boundaries live some of the world’s last mountain gorillas where they face many threats, above all from poachers. Protecting them is also fraught with danger. So far, 140 rangers have been murdered. But this hasn’t deterred Innocent Mburanumwe, warden of the Southern Sector at Virunga, from fighting on the front line to protect one of the world’s rarest creatures.

Talking on a very poor Skype connection from Rumangabo in the DRC, Mburanumwe recalls learning about gorillas at his father’s knee and explains how he is now teaching his own children. He also discusses the dangers he faces in the forest and why it is so important to protect mountain gorillas. —Simon Worrall

Your father inspired you to work with gorillas. Tell us something about your childhood.

My father is the one who started habituating mountain gorillas to people. That was in 1987, in Jomba, and was the first time I saw gorillas. My father taught me all about them and said we have to protect mountain gorillas because they are our cousins. From that time on I started loving these apes, because they seemed to be so like us. My father died in 2009. But he trained me to continue his work. Now I am teaching my own children. I have three boys and four daughters.

Do you live with your family in the forest?

At the beginning the whole family lived in the forest. But because of the war I had to move my family from the field to the town; they are now living in Goma. But I myself live in the forest in Rumangabo, next to the Virunga National Park.

What are the main threats to gorillas in Virunga?

During the war, there was no control by the rangers. The rebels penetrated deep inside the forest and tried to destroy it. That was a huge threat to the mountain gorillas. Today, the main threats come from disease and poachers.

How do you protect them?

In 2007 there was a massacre of one family. We lost about seven gorillas and we were all heartbroken. From that time, we have tried to work very hard to concentrate our forces so we can just protect them and they remain in good health. Every day, we launch patrols, sending teams inside the forest so they can control the area. Sometimes they come across and destroy poachers’ snares—metal traps or ropes.

Do they poach the gorillas for the meat?

They don’t. They poach them for money, to sell to rich people, who keep them in their gardens as pets. They think that if they take a baby gorilla it will survive, but if you take a mountain gorilla from his habitat, it can’t live. It’s going to die because it’s away from its natural habitat.

How many rangers have been killed?

We have lost about 140 rangers in the line of duty. They have been attacked by rebels and poachers. We are facing many problems in this country.

Have you yourself been attacked? Are you in danger?

Yes, I have been attacked twice. Once while driving my car. Two of my bodyguards also lost their lives.

Do you have to move about the forest armed with guns?

Yes. We are always armed with rifles. If we encounter poachers they will be armed, and we have to exchange fire.

What does your wife think about this? Does she want you to stop?

My wife worries every day about my safety. But we decided to protect nature, so I can’t change my mind.

Describe your life in the forest with the gorillas. Do you interact with them closely?

When I am in the forest, I am watching a gorilla family to see how they are communicating and that they are safe in the forest. The closest I get is about eight meters [26 feet]. But sometimes, if there are babies and juveniles, when they see us they sometimes approach as close as six meters [20 feet].

Do you know them all individually? Do you have a favorite?

Yes. I know each one individually because I’m the one who started identifying them. There are eight families. My favorite is called Cadogo. He was born without hair on his head, so he’s a baldy. [Laughs.] He looks like an old man. When you watch his face and behavior, you can see how similar he is to human beings.

What do you love about gorillas?

I love them because they are so similar to us. If you look at their faces and heads, their feet and hands, they are just like me. I consider them as my children. Seeing them playing and communicating, they are just like humans. They are also very, very funny.

[Loud animal sounds in the background]

It sounds like you’re in a zoo!

I am at the Senkwekwe Center in Rumangabo, where we look after four gorillas: three mountain gorillas and one lowland. Some babies survived the 2007 massacre, so we decided to bring them here to protect them.

What inspires you in your work, Innocent?

My inspiration is to see gorillas survive. I don’t want to lose one single gorilla, because they are the last in the world.


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