Virunga National Park welcomes the Human Rights Watch report and its attempt to shine a light on the horrific crimes and atrocities that continue to be inflicted upon members of the local civilian population, rangers and staff by multiple armed groups and bandits that operate in the wider region.
Virunga National Park covers an area over 3,000 square miles and is located in an area that has been beset by conflict for several decades. There remain security challenges near Virunga National Park and across Eastern Congo in general, as regularly documented by the Kivu Security Tracker (https://kivusecurity.org/reports) and other observers.
There is no simple solution to eliminating insecurity and criminal activities in and around the park despite continuous efforts by the rangers and the occasional support of FARDC forces. With 625 rangers currently in active duty, it is not possible to fully secure and continually patrol over 1000 kilometres of park boundary.
However, despite such adverse circumstances, ICCN efforts have led to a significant reduction in crimes committed in the park in recent years. The close relationship of rangers and park employees with the local communities enables a continuous dialogue about measures to protect them from the activities of armed groups. Such measures include the protection of daily convoys of civilians on National Road number 2, accompanied by the park rangers and FARDC, that have vastly reduced the number of attacks and kidnappings (142 in 2015 against 5 in 2019). Rangers also intervene to help civilians in distress while carrying out their regular duties, including recently an operation on 03 July to free 16 civilians that were being held hostage near Kasindi in the park’s Northern Sector. Rangers also deploy considerable efforts, and often pay a heavy price, to secure peaceful fishing activities for the approximately 100.000 people who live on the shores of Lake Edward.
Virunga National Park also implements measures designed to have a long-term impact on the ability of armed groups to operate and take hostages, including inhibiting their ability to freely move to and from the park. This includes the construction of electric fences to protect the park’s boundary in specific areas. Testimonies from local communities indicate an immediate improvement in the security situation and a reduction in crime in areas where a fence is present. These improvements will in turn deliver the necessary stability for civilians to engage in legitimate economic activities and generate employment opportunities for local people.
Beyond law enforcement, the park leads the Virunga Alliance, which brings together North Kivu’s public authorities, civil society and the private sector to sustainably and efficiently harness Virunga National Park’s huge economic development potential. Thousands of jobs have already been created, of which approximately 1,000 have been filled by former members of armed groups. It is only through such initiatives and opportunities to generate alternative, legitimate sources of income that the activities of the multiple armed groups can be truly eradicated.
While this will not happen overnight, and despite the heavy sacrifices by the rangers, Virunga National Park is committed to continue working with other law enforcement authorities and local communities to reduce opportunities for criminal activities, protect civilian populations and foster long-term stability and peace in and around the park.