Give up? No way.
Philanthropy. The Belgian nobleman Emmanuel de Merode made the rescue of the famous Virunga National Park, the oldest and most species-rich nature reserve in Africa, his life's work. With the help of international patrons and unperturbed by an assassination attempt, he is implementing his Marshall Plan for East Congo step by step. Rebels, Ebola, greedy oil companies and corrupt politicians cannot stop him.
The one-and-a-half hour drive from the Virunga National Park headquarters in Rumangabo to the Matebe hydroelectric power plant shows in fast motion why heaven and hell are so close together in this region. Why the national park is one of the most terrible and at the same time one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The road is a muddy shaking road with potholes as big as bomb craters. Poverty reigns in the villages. There is a lack of clean water, toilets, electricity, health stations, schools, jobs. People traumatised by war sit apathetically in front of wooden barracks. They have escaped the genocide in Rwanda - only to end up as refugees in East Congo, the "slaughterhouse" of Africa, where militias with their child soldiers have been spreading fear and terror for decades.
But if you look further towards the horizon, you will see a lush, lush green idyll. In the dense forests live several hundred of the last mountain gorillas, countless species of birds, colourful butterflies, rare antelopes like bongos and okapis. The volcanoes rise up to 4500 meters into the sky. Tourists can climb the Nyragongo and marvel at the liquid lava lake from the crater rim. It is the largest on earth - a fascinating spectacle at night and a highlight for every photographer.
Arrival in Matebe. The area is secured with barbed wire and heavy gates. Park manager Emmanuel de Merode climbs out of the Landcruiser, his bodyguards never let him out of their sight for a second. Guards hold a pistol-like thermometer to the head of every visitor - Ebola control. In the north of the park, the epidemic that broke out in 2018 had killed thousands. Fever checks and hand washing in a disinfectant solution are intended to prevent a renewed flare-up.
Matebe Hydroelectric Plant is Virunga's flagship project. Here de Merode wants to prove that the formula "economic development = peace = survival of the park" can work. The Rutshuru River doesn't even have to be dammed for this. The difference in level at the locks alone generates up to 14 megawatts of electricity with the help of German turbines. Today, 600 people already work here. Lights flash in a state-of-the-art control center, young men control the high-tech plant. In the halls next door there are model workshops where, for example, furniture for the new tourist lodges is made. Electricity from water power drives saws and grinding machines. Further back there is even a model garden. A smile flits over de Merode's face. He likes what he sees. In the midst of misery and chaos, Matebe seems like a project from another star.
Emmanuel de Merode was born in 1970 in Carthage, Tunisia. He is the second son of Charles Guillaume, Prince de Merode, the head of the Merode family, and his wife Princesse Hedwige de Ligne. The family is one of the oldest and most influential aristocratic families in Belgium. Because his parents work for the United Nations, de Merode grew up in Kenya, where he developed a passion for the savannahs and mountains of East Africa. He first came to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1993 for a research project in the Garamba National Park. After an intermezzo in Gabon, he returned to implement the conservation programme for the Virunga Park initiated by the London Zoological Society - first as coordinator for the EU development programme for East Congo in Goma, then as CEO of the conservation NGO WildlifeDirect and from 2007 onwards as head of the park.
When de Merode becomes park manager in 2008, he knows that he is taking on an almost impossible task. How is he supposed to protect the animals here, when the people are already impossible to protect? First he fires those rangers who poach and illegally sell off wood. Then he raises the salaries of the employees, creates proper uniforms, four-wheel drive vehicles, computers.
The boss himself moves into a small tent measuring three by four metres and leaves the large building from colonial times to his employees. Most days he eats rice and beans. He likes the simple life. At the same time, he collects donations worldwide to build roads, village schools and health stations. He wants to make the park a model for a better Congo.
To this end, de Merode establishes the Virunga Alliance, a private-public partnership (PPP) in which government institutions, civil society and the private sector work together. Half of the profits thus generated are reinvested in nature conservation and half in development projects. In consultation with NGOs, the people themselves decide which of these are to be.
As park director, the Belgian is officially subordinate to the ICCN nature conservation authority, but de facto he acts largely independently, taking political circumstances into account. "Our aim is to implement four core projects step by step: electrification, agriculture, sustainable fishing and tourism. In 2013, the park's economic output was estimated by the WWF at just under 49 million dollars. Under ideal circumstances, we could make 1.1 billion out of it. And create 45000 jobs! Indirectly, even more people would live off the park and its resources.
Electricity production from hydropower plays a key role in this concept, as the park itself becomes an entrepreneur. Already this year, the existing power plants - with more still to be built - should be operationally profitable. "Virunga is already the second largest supplier in the nearby 1.5 million-strong city of Goma," explains de Merode. "If all the plants produce electricity, we will even be the second largest supplier in the whole of Congo."
This will benefit private households and small businesses such as millers, car mechanics, bakers and hairdressers. Currently, 150 companies are among the customers. The suppliers of sustainably caught fish from Lake Edward need electricity to cool it. The organic coffee roasting plant and the soap factory, in which palm oil from local production is processed, are also customers. "The agricultural potential is huge," enthuses de Merode. "East Congo can become the granary and breadbasket of all Africa."
de Merode uses the fact that business development of the affiliated companies is linked to energy consumption as a kind of early warning system. "If consumption goes down, we send consultants to the companies and ask what's wrong."
An important side effect of the electrification is that now fewer and fewer locals cook with charcoal. This weakens the power base of the rebels who trade in coal and protects the forest where the gorillas live. Nevertheless, it is not easy to persuade people to switch, because electricity is more expensive than charcoal.
Tourism plays a special role in the concept of the national park. Compared to the electric power plants, it still contributes little to the Virunga Alliance's turnover. But its symbolic power cannot be overestimated. "Tourism is the game changer par excellence," confirms de Merode. "Everyone loves gorillas. We have the only mountain gorilla orphanage in the world in Rumangabo, and several groups out in the forests used to human visits." During the rainy season, a visit permit costs only 200 dollars - compared to the 1500 dollars in neighbouring Rwanda, this is very little and a good reason for less well-off animal lovers to travel to the Congo.
In this part of the project, too, the park is not only an intermediary, but itself an entrepreneur, lodge operator and tour operator. In 2010 and 2011, 5000 visitors each came after Virunga had built a comfortable and approximately one million dollar lodge in Rumangabo. In November 2012, however, the rebel group M23 overran the headquarters and took Goma. The park remained closed for a whole year. In 2018 de Merode had to close the park again.
Julie Williams, Virunga's director of tourism, remains optimistic. In 2019 there were 2000 visitors after all. "Virunga is not for all travelers. Not everyone wants to be escorted by armed rangers. We want backpackers and billionaires, but most of all we want people with the right attitude and genuine interest."
She is currently having new lodges and tented camps built. She sends her cooks to gourmet restaurants for training. And to relax after the volcano and ape tours there is now a Tented Camp on an island in Lake Kivu. Also in the central and northern part of the park, currently still controlled by rebels and therefore too unsafe for tourists, new accommodations are being built.
At some point, Williams dreams, it will then be possible to take a grand tour of the Congo, during which tourists will also visit the country's other unique parks, where there is currently no tourist infrastructure whatsoever.
But that's still a pipe dream. De Merode had to find out for himself that East Congo is a dangerous place after he tried to persuade the British oil company Soco International to stop its test drilling in the park. He took advantage of the public. Leonardo DiCaprio produced the documentary film "Virunga" for Netflix, which depicted de Merode's struggle against oil drilling in the park. On April 15, 2014, two days before the premiere, de Merode's vehicle came under fire as he drove back from Goma to the headquarters in Rumangabo.
Four bullets hit him in the stomach and legs. He fired back, managed to escape with the help of local residents and underwent emergency surgery in a hospital in Goma. His condition was critical, but he survived. The perpetrators were never caught, the background was never cleared up. "Fortunately I don't have any long-term effects," he says. "The only time I feel his injuries is on long-haul flights and when I run." People who wear uniforms are sometimes hurt, he continues, it's part of the job. "I would regret it terribly if I gave up because of that."
After the premiere of the Netflix documentary, an outraged world public, UNESCO, EU, the British, German and numerous other parliaments increased the pressure on Soco to such an extent that the company let its license expire in 2015. "There is no doubt in my mind that without the Netflix film, the park would not exist today."
de Merode uses the additional popularity gained in this way to collect donations. In 2017, for example, he will run the London Marathon to draw attention to the problems of the widows of fallen park rangers. More than one million US dollars are raised, which are doubled by Swedish philanthropist Paul Leander-Engström.
This commitment from private sponsors is important for the park. Currently, the EU is still financing 60 percent of the Alliance's investments. The other 40 percent is divided equally between proceeds from tourism and donations. The money for the development of Matebe's electricity system comes primarily from The Schmidt Family Foundation (TSFF) of Google founder Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy. Six of the eleven million dollars invested was granted by TSFF as a donation, the rest as a loan. The main patron of the power plants and the pipelines is Howard Buffett. The son of the legendary investor, who first came to the Congo to see gorillas in the mid-1990s, donated a total of 39 million dollars. "When he approached us, I had no idea who he was," admits de Merode.
Until 2022 de Merode wanted to be independent of public funding. This did not seem impossible. Because then the Matebe hydroelectric power station was to produce surpluses. But now the virus has also thwarted his plans. The park is initially closed until June, and there is no income from tourism. "We had so hoped to be able to step on the gas now. But this further crisis will not knock us down", de Merode encourages himself.
So it's all the more important for him and his ambitious project to attract more private sponsors. Since the US actor and producer Edward Norton paid the first 10000 dollars into the Virunga Foundation's pot in 2007, he has indeed already achieved a great deal in this respect. "Sponsors can support specific projects or, for example, stipulate that their money is to go exclusively to particularly sustainable projects," explains the park director. For example, the Swede Leander-Engström donates to the widows of fallen park rangers through his foundation "The World We Want Foundation (3W)". And he also supports a chocolate factory of local cocoa farmers as part of a joint venture. Unfortunately, according to de Merode, there are no private individuals from Germany among the sponsors. However, the German ambassador in Kinshasa has signalled interest in financial support.
On the way back from Matebe to the park's headquarters, it starts to rain with an intensity only possible in the tropics. Within minutes, the track turns into a clay slide, ditches turn into torrential torrents. On top of this comes the news that blue helmets have shot a demonstrator in Beni, the precarious security situation threatens to tip over once again. De Merode takes note of it stoically. He knows that heaven and hell lie very close together here. A little more heaven, a little less hell - that would make him very happy. Almost defiantly he says: "I have the best job in the world in the most exciting and beautiful park in Africa!
This is how you support the national park.
// 01. Donate and donate
Anyone wishing to support the Virunga Foundation financially should contact Emmanuel de Merode directly. The publisher will arrange the contact. Apart from that, everyone who comes to the park as a visitor helps the park, because all the tourist infrastructure is managed by the park itself. Of the permit fees for the volcano ascent and gorilla tracking, 50 percent go to the state nature conservation authority ICCN in Kinshasa, 20 percent cover the running costs of the park and 30 percent are invested in village projects.
// 02. Travel
Tourists support the Virunga project through their travel. Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) flies from twelve German airports via Istanbul to Kigali/Rwanda. A multiple-entry visa for 70 US dollars can be obtained upon entry. From here the journey continues by car to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo near Goma. The Congo visa for the Virunga Park will be provided by the organizer. Heike van Staden, head of Elangeni African Adventures (www.elangeni.de) puts together complete packages with flight or from Kigali.
Media and Links
Emmanuel de Merode wrote more than a dozen scientific books and was one of the authors of the book "Virunga: The Survival of Africa's First National Park". DiCaprio's Netflix documentary "Virunga" was nominated for an Oscar in the category "Best Documentary" (https://virungamovie.com)
More information: Virunga Foundation/Alliance and website of the park: https://virunga.org; Andrea Böhm: "God and the crocodiles: A Journey through the Congo", Pantheon Verlag; Tim Butcher: "Blood River - Into the Dark Heart of the Congo", Frederking & Thaler; David Van Reybrouck: "Congo - A History", Suhrkamp.
Author: Dr. Günter Kast