Africa's Oldest National Park In Crisis Virunga National Park in Central Africa is located in what has become a war zone. Its trees are being cut down to support a lucrative, militia-controlled charcoal trade. If the destruction continues unchecked, most of the trees in southern Virunga will be gone in a decade.
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Africa's Oldest National Park In Crisis

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Africa's Oldest National Park In Crisis

Africa's Oldest National Park In Crisis

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, is every flip-flop a flop? But first, Virunga National Park in Central Africa was created as a sanctuary for mountain gorillas, but the park is going up in flames. Armed men are cutting down its hardwood forests for charcoal. If that continues, most of the trees in southern Virunga will be gone in a decade. So the park's rangers have come up with a plan. It includes alternative fuels, international politics, and guns. NPR's John Hamilton has the story.

JOHN HAMILTON: Dian Fossey made the Virunga Mountains famous with her book "Gorillas in the Mist." But Emmanuel de Merode, a conservationist, says gorillas are just a part of what's so special about the oldest national park in Africa.

Dr. EMMANUEL DE MERODE (Executive Director, WildlifeDirect): There are more mammal, bird, and reptile species in Virunga than in any other park in Africa, and possibly even the world.

HAMILTON: De Merode grew up in Africa. He moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1993 to help rebuild the national parks there. He couldn't have picked a worse time.

Dr. DE MERODE: The whole situation essentially collapsed in 1994 as a result of the terrible tragedy in Rwanda, the genocide that took place. And whilst the Rwandans did a remarkable job at rebuilding their country, a lot of the problems spilt over into eastern Congo, and most of all into Virunga National Park.

HAMILTON: Hundreds of thousands of refugees were forced to camp along the park's borders. Most are still in the area. Aid agencies supply these people with food, but not the fuel they need to cook and boil water so it's safe to drink. De Merode says that's put the forest at risk by creating a market for illegal charcoal, worth about 30 million dollars a year. Most of this goes to rebel militias. They send men with guns into Virunga to build massive kilns and cut down the ancient trees.

Dr. DE MERODE: We've managed to largely protect the gorilla sector, so far. But it's regularly coming under attack. The last major attack was in 2004 when 15 square kilometers were cleared in two weeks.

HAMILTON: The rebels shoot people who interfere. They're also suspected of shooting gorillas. Godefroid Wambale is one of the rangers trying to guard the forests. He says he's been shot at, and many of his colleagues have died defending the parks.

Mr. GODEFROID WAMBALE (Park Ranger, Virunga National Park): Kasereka(ph), he was killed in Kabarasa(ph). Another one was Monzombo(ph), Kalibumba (ph) also would belong to the...

HAMILTON: De Merode says that for Virunga to survive, two things must happen. One is that the rangers become a highly-trained and well-equipped paramilitary unit. The other is that the market for illegal charcoal disappears. And that means finding another source of fuel. De Merode wants to create a whole new industry producing briquettes made from grass or wood chippings. Both goals will take international support. In 1979, UNESCO declared Virunga a World Heritage Site. De Merode says it's time that designation actually meant something.

Dr. DE MERODE: There is a world responsibility towards supporting that park, and that hasn't been fully realized yet.

HAMILTON: De Merode says that means money, expertise, and a political commitment from neighboring countries to protect the park. Godefroid Wambale says he and his fellow rangers just need a little help.

Mr. WAMBALE: We have the will to win. And those rebels, they have to get out from the national park.

HAMILTON: So far, De Merode says, the rangers have been able to limit the damage. De Merode says he's working with groups, including the National Geographic Society, to get the world's attention.

Dr. DE MERODE: I have two daughters. The most wonderful thing in the world for me would be able to show them the mountain gorillas one day and to be able to spend a few moments within a group of mountain gorillas. And I'm absolutely convinced that that will be possible.

HAMILTON: Once the forests stop burning. John Hamilton, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: To see images of Virunga National Park and watch a National Geographic video, visit

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