DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — A member of Belgium's royal family who, as director of a vast national park in eastern Congo has tried to defend endangered mountain gorillas and other animals from poachers and the forests from illegal logging and charcoal production, was shot and seriously wounded as he drove in the area, officials said Wednesday.
A park spokeswoman said Emmanuel de Merode, who also serves as chief warden of Virunga National Park, appeared to have been targeted but wouldn't say by whom. The list of potential suspects includes members of outlawed armed groups that roam the park, Africa's oldest.
De Merode was in serious but stable condition in a hospital in the city of Goma after being attacked by three gunmen 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Goma on Tuesday, said park spokeswoman Joanna Natasegara.
Virunga covers 7,800 square kilometers (3,000 square miles), including the snowcapped Rwenzori mountains that soar more than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) high, seven volcanoes and a lake and plains filled with wildlife. Virunga National Park is home to a quarter of the world's estimated 800 remaining mountain gorillas, and they are under threat. The park boasts more than 200 species of mammals including the giraffe-like okapi found only in Congo. It is the only place on Earth where one can see all three African great apes, among its 22 primates.
De Merode and other park officials have fought to protect the park from exploitation, including poachers and armed militias that illegally log its trees to sell charcoal, a lucrative business. The Congolese government has also authorized oil exploration in the park.
In an interview with The Associated Press in 2012, de Merode noted that the important work of protecting the park's great landscapes and animals often came at the cost of huge sacrifice on the part of park rangers. The chief warden is a pilot who flies his rangers to the scenes of illegal fishing and logging in the park.
Natasegara said in a phone interview that more than 140 park rangers have been killed in the past 10 years.
De Merode's injuries were initially very critical but he was conscious and responding well to treatment, Natasegara said, adding: "This morning he's much more stable. He's out of the woods."
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said in a statement that two surgeons from the U.N.'s peacekeeping force for Congo took part in an operation on de Merode. He said de Merode was in stable condition.
Among other threats to Virunga and its wildlife: illegal fishing in the reserve's lake, stealing of baby gorillas for selling or killing of adults for their claws and a budding oil industry.
French oil company Total has pledged not to exploit the part of its concession that falls inside the park, but another company, London-based SOCO, has said it will. That prompted the British Foreign Office and the World Wildlife Fund to urge SOCO not to explore within the park.
In a statement, SOCO condemned the attack on de Merode.
Belgian legislator Francois-Xavier De Donnea told the VTM network on Wednesday that de Merode was fearless in protecting the park.
"He knew he was running a risk. I often told him so," he said. "He goes against the interests of major financial groups."
Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of conservation at WWF International, remarked on de Merode's passion as a conservationist, saying that he put "his life on the line every day to protect Virunga National Park, its rangers, its endangered species and the people that depend on the park for their livelihoods."
Associated Press writers Greg Katz in London, Michelle Faul in Lagos, Nigeria, Raf Casert in Brussels and Jerome Delay in Carnot, Central African Republic, contributed to this report.