Belgian head of wildlife reserve shot in DR Congo
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Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian head of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffered gunshot wounds in an ambush on Tuesday. Park officials say his injuries are serious but not life-threatening.
“We are very relieved that he is in a stable condition,” Joanna Natasegara, a spokesperson for the park, told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday. She added de Merode was in hospital in the regional capital Goma, where he was to remain until his condition allowed him to be transported out of the country.
De Merode was driving alone at around 4:30pm when his jeep came under fire from unidentified attackers 30km north of Goma.
“De Merode’s car was attacked by three men with assault rifles as he returned to his home at the park’s headquarters in Rumangabo from Goma. Despite receiving bullet wounds, he reached the HEAL Africa hospital in Goma conscious and was operated on by a UN surgeon,” the British-based NGO Global Witness, which investigates illegal extraction of natural resources in DR Congo, said in a statement.
Hospital staff said the head of the Virunga park had received several gunshot wounds but that the bullets had missed vital organs.
Local conservationists issued a statement condemning the attack, which they said was aimed at “discouraging community development and conservation efforts”.
WWF head of conservation Lasse Gustavsson told AFP de Merode was a “dedicated conservationist” who put his life on the line every day to protect the park and the people who depended on it for their livelihoods.
Nothing was stolen from his car and authorities in both DR Congo and Belgium have opened investigations into the attack, which appears to have targeted him as director of Africa’s oldest national park.
Virunga’s deputy director Norbert Mushenzi told FRANCE 24 that de Merode was “not hot-headed” and “always told his staff to be prudent”.
Although the surrounding North Kivu province has been the scene of violent rebellions in recent years and many park rangers lost their lives to armed militias, the site of the shooting is regarded as mostly safe.
“He was attacked on a major, busy road where there are normally no attacks in broad daylight,” Belgian MP François-Xavier de Donnea told FRANCE 24.
A long-time supporter of Virunga National Park, de Donnea added that the Belgian conservationist had made many enemies defending the nature reserve, from rebel militias who profit from illegal charcoal manufacturing and fishing to farmers and supporters of oil exploration in the park.
The Belgian MP said de Merode had called him four hours before the attack to say he was driving to Goma to file a report on activities by the British-based Soco oil company.
“Two to three years ago, a prosecutor asked the park authority to investigate some facts about Soco,” de Donnea said. “Park rangers collected evidence in the report that was filed yesterday.”
Soco obtained an oil exploration licence covering part of the park in 2010, but international pressure has put the permit in jeopardy. The world cultural body UNESCO has listed Virunga as a “world heritage site in danger” and repeatedly criticised the Congolese authorities for planning oil exploration there.
The park features stunning scenery shaped by active volcanoes and a rich wildlife including some of the world’s last mountain gorillas.
Although Soco has always claimed it would act in accordance with Congolese law and stay away from gorilla habitats, park authorities reported at least one case in which Soco workers forcibly entered Virunga in 2011 despite a legal ban on oil prospection inside the reserve.
“I am not saying there is a link” between de Merode’s investigation into Soco and the attack, de Donnea said. “But the coincidence can be disturbing.”
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