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May 06, 2013

The Interview - Emmanuel de Merode

We are thrilled to introduce Emmanuel de Merode as the May "interviewee" for The Periscope.

This series of interviews aims to highlight individuals who are intricately involved in African conservation. We aim to interview scientists, philanthropists, filmmakers and safari operators amongst others. Africa’s wilderness and wildlife is under unprecedented pressure – these are the people who make a difference and are committed to finding solutions to its conservation.

About Emmanuel
Anthropologist, conservationist, pilot, Emmanuel worked to control the bushmeat trade and protect endangered wildlife in Central and Eastern Africa. His main focus has been support for African wildlife rangers in remote and difficult national parks and reserves. His work was primarily in the parks of eastern DRC, working to sustain the national parks through the DRC's 10-year civil war. Author of fourteen scientific papers and co-editor of the book Virunga: The Survival of Africa's First National Park.

On 1 August 2008, he was appointed by Congolese Government as Director for Virunga National Park. After swearing allegiance to the Congolese flag, he became the only foreign national to exercise judicial powers in the war torn central African nation. He now lives at the park headquarters in Rumangabo, bordering the park's mountain gorilla sector. The park's rangers fall under his command and much of his work is focused on protecting the park's exceptional wildlife, that include a critically important population of Mountain Gorillas, elephants, okapis and chimpanzees. His first breakthrough was to broker an agreement between the Congolese Government and Rebel Leader Laurent Nkunda to spare the Mountain Gorilla Sector of the Park from the rages of the ongoing civil war and to enable government rangers to redeploy in rebel territory.

Given the chronic absence of adequate funding for the park, he has worked on building support through the Internet, specifically through an innovative social networking website http://www.gorilla.cd. This has helped augment the vital funding the park receives from the European Commission. His work also includes the promotion of sustainable energy for poor households, as an alternative to forest destruction for charcoal, through the development of combustible biomass briquettes, a new industry that is projected to create 30,000 jobs in post-conflict areas of eastern DRC.

Now to the interview.....

Please provide an overview of your organization?
As Director of Virunga National Park, I work for Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), which is the Congolese government wildlife authority. All ICCN personnel that work in Virunga report to me, but I depend heavily on the sector wardens that oversee the dedicated ranger teams that protect the park. I also preside over two NGOs, Africa Conservation Fund (UK) and Virunga Fund. which are solely dedicated to supporting the park and its rangers. Both organizations are working to build support for Virunga among private individuals and foundations. Outside support is absolutely critical to the survival of the park's mountain gorillas and other wildlife, and to the park as a whole.

What do you see as the biggest threat to African wildlife?
Extreme poverty and armed conflict are without question the biggest threats to Africa's wildlife. Both undermine the rule of law and without that, there is little hope of being able to protect wildlife from threats, such as poaching, the bush meat trade, and illegal animal trafficking. Of course, the extraction of natural resources also poses a huge threat to Africa's wildlife because it destroys critical wildlife habitat and often ends up funding the armed groups that threaten wild areas like Virunga.

What would be your top three guiding principles to conservation?
Education - Education is key to getting people to understand the the importance of preserving the natural world. In Virunga, we're putting a lot of effort into educating the younger generation that will grow up to be the future stewards of the park. As surprising as it may sound, many children that grow up in villages adjacent to the park have a very limited understanding of the what the park contains and why protecting it is so important. That is why we built the Environmental Education Center at park headquarters in Rumangabo. Our goal is to have visits to the center be a part of the educational curriculum for local schools. At the center, children will be exposed to the natural wonders of Virunga and be taught how protecting and preserving the park will, in turn, make their lives better.

Delivering benefits to the local population - For wild areas to thrive, there has to be something in it for the local population. National Parks like Virunga have to represent more than a body of rules to be obeyed -- they must deliver benefits. With the help of generous donations from the international community, we have been able to build and support numerous schools, bring potable water to villages, provide security to local people, and most recently, bring affordable hydro-electric power to areas never before having electricity. In the end, I guess it boils down to a belief that if Virunga takes care of the people living around the park, they will take care of Virunga.

Respect - One has to have a high level of respect for those on the frontlines of conservation. Their jobs are unimaginably difficult and they need to know that you respect and care about them. In Virunga, where over 130 rangers have been killed defending the park in the last 15 years, I try to show my respect by ensuring rangers are paid regularly, given access to affordable medical care for themselves and their families, provided a high level of training that will help ensure their safety in the field, outfitted with dependable equipment, and given ample rations. When one of my rangers is critically injured and needs to be medivaced, I personally fly in to get them if the terrain permits. Sadly, I have attended many ranger funerals, but I think we all take solace in knowing we did our best to help them. Lastly, respect takes the form of caring for the families of rangers killed or seriously injured in the line of duty. Through our newly created Fallen Rangers Fund, which is supported by generous and caring individuals around the world, we are able to prevent these families from spiraling into extreme poverty.

If you only had one place in Africa to go, where would it be?
Virunga, so there is really no need to go anywhere. For me, it's the most incredible place on Earth. Within Virunga lives three of the four taxa of great apes, two species of elephant, hippos, lions, and amazing array of bird species to name but a few. The park has a wide variety of landscapes, including jungles, savannahs, lakes, and alpine highlands. Add to this active volcanoes, the world's largest lava lake, and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori mountains, and well, I guess the makes my one place right here.

What's next for you?
Honestly, I see myself in Virunga for the foreseeable future. There are so may challenges and opportunities that remain here -- certainly enough to fill my lifetime and then some - that I don't see a reason to change course.

How do you envision Africa in ten years time?
I am hopeful that Africa will escape from what now seems like a never-ending cycle of conflict. No place in Africa speaks more to the destructiveness of conflict than eastern Congo. If we can reduce the proliferation of weapons here in N.Kivu, I believe there is a resilient people waiting to take the region in a much more positive direction. I think the same holds true for the rest of Africa that is gripped by conflict. Achieving this will be a difficult and complex process, but I do believe it's possible.

Who are your heroines/heroes in real life?
That's easy. My heroes are the rangers that have given their lives to protect Virunga and the rangers who are out there doing that is very minute. My wife and children also have hero status because they support my work in Virunga -- even though doing so means they rarely get to see me.

What is your motto?
I'd have to go with what Yoda once said, "Do or do not, there is no try"



Emmanuel De Merode: A Story of Conflict Renewal & Hope at TED & WWF Speakers Series

"Emmanuel De Merode, Director for Virunga National Park, gives an account of the struggle to save one of the world's great national parks with its population of mountain gorillas. He renders accessible to an audience one of the darkest conflicts in recent history, the bloody civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is not just a story of bleak and bloody facts: ultimately it is a story of determination and courage and how a small unit of Congolese park rangers, community workers and local environmental activists brought about a miracle in African wildlife conservation."

To learn more about the work Emmanuel and what his dedicated team are doing in Virunga National Park and how you can help please visit their website: http://gorillacd.org




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