|Rodrigue Katembo/Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize|
The best part of my job as a journalist is to spend time with amazing people whom I would never have a chance to meet otherwise.
One of them is Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, a former child soldier who has become one of the most passionate defenders of Congo’s natural heritage, first as head ranger at Virunga National Park and now as the director of Upemba National Park, one of Congo’s most spectacular, but also most pillaged, neglected and dangerous parks.
I’ve met Katembo on one of his rare forays away from Upemba. He spoke in French, in a measured way, sounding more like the civil servant he always wanted to be than the brave ranger who has risked his life many times to protect Congo’s iconic parks. He wants to fight corruption and illegality – a dangerous mission in a country like the Congo.
Katembo was in London last month on his was to San Francisco to receive the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa (a sort of Nobel for environmental activists), for exposing illegal oil exploration in Virunga - a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas.
He paid a heavy price: during his investigation, he has been kidnapped, tortured and faced mock executions. You might have seen “Virunga,” the 2014 Netflix documentary which recalls that story.
A year later, he was transferred to Upemba for his own safety. There he is trying to slowly stabilise wildlife. The elephants, which were emblematic of the park, had been poached on a massive scale by the rangers themselves, the military, the police, the locals and the brutal Mai Mai militia- and those who escaped the slaughter had left the protected area.
He has already reintroduced one population of 68 elephants and another larger one is approaching the park’s borders. Under his watch, no elephants have been poached in Upemba since 2016. But it’s no easy job.
Since starting work at Upemba, Katembo has fought off armed militia, faced death threats and refused to accept multiple bribes to gain access to the park for illegal mining. He now lives apart from his wife and children for their safety.
“I am not special, ” Katembo simply said. “Yes, I was imprisoned and tortured, but many guards have died doing their jobs.” Protecting Congo’s national parks is widely recognized as one of the most dangerous jobs in conservation. Over the past 20 years, more than 160 of Katembo’s park ranger colleagues have been killed - and they still continue to get killed today.
“We need to respect their work. We need to be willing to defend what they have died to protect. By protecting the park, we are protecting unique wildlife, local populations’ livelihood and Congo’s natural heritage – which is also the heritage of the whole world.”
Here is my full story on Katembo for Positive News. There are some great photos too!