The Virunga National Park authority made the drastic but a significant decision in May 2018 to close it in the wake of the tragic incident earlier when one of the park’s rangers was killed, while three other people that included two visitors were abducted, but later released. This was not only a big loss for community tourism but also the image of the country at large. Emmanuel de Merode, Chief Warden of Virunga National Park when announcing the decision, said the safety of visitors will always take precedence, and in regards to that, they have taken a number of significant measures to bring sanity back to the park.
Among the measures Emmanuel de Merode announced was hiring of internationally reputed specialist security firm to audit the park’s security measures “so that we can make a balanced and rigorous assessment of visitor security”. He also announced they are hiring extra security staff, both locally and internationally, so as to bolster the park’s security protocols.
The Virunga National Park has been deeply affected by insecurity, and this is going to remain the same for some time. But as the park’s chief said, for it to be visited safely, much more robust measures should be undertaken than before.
Virunga Community Programs echoes the sentiments, for we believe that for safety to be restored, much more effort should be expended on improving security in and around the park. The insecurity in this region are mainly caused by internecine conflicts, chronic poverty and hunger, illegal oil exploration, fight for natural minerals, and the park’s past dynamics.
Presently, there are several peasants illegally living in the park. They were driven there by scarcity of land, lack of economic opportunities, and the belief that the park was built on their “ancestral” land.
Other people enter the park sporadically in order to carry out illegal activities such as fishing, poaching, logging, cultivation, and production of charcoal. The presence of armed actors makes these activities possible. They allow civilians to carry out these activities, in exchange for protection fees. It implies that a good number of the population that lives in or around this park collaborates currently with armed groups to guarantee their livelihoods.
However much the closure of the park is a difficult decision for the park authorities, in light of the insecurity rampant in this region, Virunga Community Programs believes that this should be taken as a blessing in disguise, and we should use the closure to undertake viable initiatives to completely wipe out the problems facing it forever.For instance, this should be the time concerted education about the benefits of tourism and conservation should be carried out. We should involve professionals, conservation stakeholders and the local population in finding ways through which we should protect the park.
We also believe that since poverty and hunger are also the root causes of insecurity in and around the park, we should initiate measures to mitigate these. Virunga Community Programs has identified various measures through which we can empower the local community, which in turn will act as a buffer against insecurity, while promoting conservation.
For instance, apart from conservation education campaigns, intensive fundraising should be carried out to help the local families mired in poverty.
We should ask ourselves why it’s only the Virunga National Park that suffers this debilitating insecurity situation. Other parks like the Volcanoes National Parks in Rwanda, the Kahuzi-Biega in DRC, and the Mgahinga National Park in Uganda are open and things are running normally. But why only the Virunga? What’s not being done right there to improve security? Are we actively involving the locals in tourism and conservation activities? And is the local community benefiting from tourism, like in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Parks, where revenue sharing is part of the RDB’s initiative to promote conservation?