Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo announced Monday the deaths of five park rangers and a staff driver killed during an ambush in the park’s central sector.
“A sixth ranger was also wounded,” the park said in its statement, adding that additional information will be released as it is known. Armed militia members were suspected to be responsible for the attack.
Virunga has been described as the world’s most dangerous park, and defending it has claimed more than 150 ranger lives at the World Heritage site. Mai Mai (FDLR) rebels operate in the region near the Ugandan border, where a staff of about 500 rangers is normally employed.
Their work is part of what makes the DR Congo the seventh most dangerous nation on earth for environmental advocates, NGO workers, journalists and others focused on protections, according to the July 2017 “Defenders of the Earth” report from Global Witness. Rangers including 26-year-old Patrick Prince Muhayirwa and 30-year-old Jules Kombi Kambale, among Virunga’s fallen, often die while fighting off rebels and poachers.
They leave behind families supported by the Fallen Rangers Fund, and a sewing initiative designed to create economic opportunity for the ranger widows. At the headquarters, a mural honors each fallen ranger with a star, along with images of the mountain gorillas and other animals that call Virunga home.
Last month, the United Nations Environment Program launched a new initiative to better protect environmental defenders around the world.
“Those who struggle to protect planet and people should be celebrated as heroes, but the sad fact is that many are paying a heavy price with their safety and sometimes their lives,” said Erik Solheim, head of UNEP. “It’s our duty to stand on the side of those who are on the right side of history.”
Image: Virunga National Park file