01/29/2013 08:08 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Emmanuel de Mérode: Protecting Congo's Mountain Gorillas in a War Zone

It is difficult to imagine a more dangerous place to be a wildlife conservationist than the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which for decades has been ravaged by war and civil strife that has left several million people dead. But it is against this backdrop that Chief Warden Emmanuel de Mérode has waged a five-year struggle to protect Virunga National Park -- the oldest national park in Africa and the home to one of the last sizeable populations of mountain gorillas in the world.

Yale Environment 360: Last fall, a Virunga National Park ranger patrol was ambushed and left one ranger dead. More than 150 Virunga park rangers have been killed in the line of duty since 1996. Can you describe the conditions in which the rangers work?

Emmanuel de Mérode: Well, it varies. There are periods when things are relatively stable. But more of the time over these last twenty years we have had periods of armed conflicts, and that put our rangers under very significant strain. They tend to be the last to leave because the national park has to be protected. They bear attacks when they've stayed and have remained the only governmental authority. And because of that, they get specifically targeted by these armed groups.

e360: You started a fund for the [murdered] rangers?

de Mérode: Yes. The Fallen Rangers Widows Fund. If we are unable to provide anything for [the] families [of the fallen rangers] we are left with a terrible situation... It is very, very difficult for us to maintain morale and hard to manage a team in those conditions. You've got their widows and orphans who are abandoned and left in a situation of extreme poverty with absolutely no safety net. So for many reasons it is an absolute priority for us to be able to look after the families of those who died protecting the park.

e360: In early December, a small group of rangers, including yourself, was able to finally survey the gorilla sector of Virunga National Park after being unable to get into the park for four months. How did you finally get access -- was it through negotiations?

de Mérode: We were able to go back and have been able to maintain a constant presence. It took us a long time to negotiate the agreement, and it was because the battle zone was close to where we needed to be. There was contact between our rangers and armed personnel who were on high alert, so this was a very difficult and dangerous situation.

e360: Who are the armed personnel you refer to?

de Mérode: At the time it was mainly M23 rebels.

e360: When you finally got access, much to your surprise you found a number of newborn gorillas.

de Mérode: Yes. We were able to locate all six gorilla families and we were pleased about that. What was wonderful is that there was a remarkably high number of births -- seven births. Of which four were in one group alone, which is now a large family of 37 individuals.

e360: Does this symbolize anything about the health of the gorillas?

de Mérode: I would love to be able to say it's a wartime baby boom, but it is just coincidence. It reflects that the population hasn't been disturbed. We also didn't have a registered death and that is much more significant. Seven births without any deaths in a five-month period is 25 to 30 percent growth -- three times greater than what we would normally expect for the mountain gorilla population. It is a random peak, [but] it was a very nice result of that survey, especially given the level of concern that we felt for the gorilla population. There was a very real chance we would have lost some gorillas as a result of the combat in the gorilla sector.

e360: Have you been able to understand how the gorillas survive in the park with all the violence around them? For example, do you think they move away from the fighting?

de Mérode: I don't think they do, based on the contact we've had with them. We have a very close relationship with the orphan gorillas who are with us at Rumangabo, at the park headquarters. We stay with them when there's fighting, when there's a lot of gunfire or artillery fire. And they don't move... With the mountain gorillas in the forest, it's almost certainly the same thing -- they get on with their lives, but they don't move away from the fighting. So that obviously puts them at risk.

e360: This park was created in 1925 and had the highest population of large mammals in the world at one time. Has the current central African poaching epidemic affected Virunga?

de Mérode: The hippos are probably the most poignant, because it's the world's biggest population of hippos, or at least it used to be. So that went down from 27,000 in the 1970s to less than 350 individuals in 2005. It has since increased to about 1,200. And so the situation is evolving. Right now we are more concerned about the elephant population, which is being hit very badly because of the price of ivory and the very elaborate ivory trading networks that have surfaced in this area. The elephant population used to be around 3,000, and that's gone down to about 300.

e360: You have said that Virunga can play an instrumental role in creating peace in the whole of eastern Congo. Can you expound on this point?

de Mérode: Well, the eastern Congo is a huge area. But that part of eastern Congo where there's the highest level of conflict is in and immediately around Virunga. So if it were possible to stabilize the park, that would have a very deep effect on the security in the area. The national park rangers have a natural role to play in restoring stability to this area. The other aspect of that is that this is a war that has been going on for 20 years now. And it's now widely recognized that the underlying cause of that war is the illegal exploitation of natural resources. And many of those natural resources are in the park. So it's the park's role to ensure that the illegal exploitation of natural resources doesn't happen. And should it succeed in doing that -- which is what we are trying to do -- then it would have a very significant impact on peace and stabilization.

This interview was originally published in Yale e360. You can read the full interview and see photos and video here.