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Who tried to kill the man who protects the Congo gorillas?

The head warden at Virunga reserve has plenty of enemies

Emmanuel de Merode had driven the road between Goma, the trading hub at the centre of war-torn eastern Congo, and Rumangabo, the headquarters of Virunga national park where he is head warden, hundreds of times. It is a regular supply route for the man who since 2008 has had perhaps the most dangerous job in conservation.

He first arrived in the region at the height of the Congolese civil war. He stayed to work in the spectacular reserve, which is estimated to be home to 80 per cent of the world’s surviving mountain gorillas, even when it was overrun by armed militias. This week, however, his luck ran out. Three gunmen ambushed his vehicle – shooting him five times in the legs and chest.

He was able to stagger from the vehicle to hide in a ditch, before being found by a passing motorcyclist. Last night he was in Nairobi receiving treatment. His condition was described as serious but stable. The question remains, however – who tried to kill him?

Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park, established in 1925, and is in the heart of one of the world’s most volatile spots, near the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s border with Rwanda and Uganda.

It is a place many outsiders are unable to reach. But, following the attack on Mr De Merode, 43, evidence of the challenges he faced has come in a new documentary debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival presently being held in the United States.

Named Virunga, it depicts Mr De Merode’s struggle to protect the park and its wildlife from militias, rebels and mineral research. The documentary includes combat footage with heavy shelling when a rebel group overran near-by villages.

“The front line came right up to where I was at some points,” the British director, Orlando von Einsiedel, told The Independent on Sunday. “But the rangers have been dealing with this for years. They don’t have the choice of leaving.”

A Belgian aristocrat, Mr De Merode grew up in eastern Africa and trained as an anthropologist. In 2008, the Congolese appointed him head of Virunga. The park was in crisis. The previous warden had been arrested for charcoal trafficking and was also charged with helping to kill several of the park’s mountain gorillas. Moreover, much of the park was in the hands of a rebel group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People, under the control of warlord Laurent Nkunda.

It’s a testiment to his negotiating skills that Mr De Merode persuaded the rebels and other armed groups not to harm the gorillas. Gradually he and his men regained control of the park. It was not, however, without cost. Some 150 of Virunga’s 680 rangers have been killed in the past decade, the most recent in January.

Mr De Merode was not without enemies as many locals were unhappy with his rigorous efforts to stop poaching and enforce the ban on charcoal production. In addition, the London-based oil and gas company Soco International has obtained permission from the Congolese government to conduct seismic testing in Virunga. Mr De Merode had publicly opposed all mineral exploitation – which is supported by many locally, who believe it could bring wealth to the region.

The Virunga documentary broadcast at Tribeca claims to show hidden footage of Soco supporters trying to bribe park wardens to circumvent Mr De Merode. Another encounter allegedly shows a security contractor for Soco paying out a bribe.

It is understood that Soco’s lawyers have raised objections about alleged “inaccuracies” in the film with the film’s producers and with the organisers of the Tribeca festival and there is no suggestion whatsoever that Soco either condoned or had any involvement in the attack on Mr De Merode.

It issued a statement condemning the attack on the Belgian warden and acknowledging “the deep respect held for Mr De Merode internationally and within the DRC”, and also said: “Soco does not condone violence of any kind and makes it clear that any suggestion linking Soco to this crime is completely unfounded, defamatory and highly inappropriate.”

The company has publicly stated its opposition to bribery and corruption. In addition its website has a strongly stated anti-bribery and corruption policy and insists it has formal processes in place to identify and mitigate the risk of the occurrence of bribery and corruption.

Last night Mr De Merode’s wife, the noted Kenyan-born palaeontologist Louise Leakey, with whom he has two children, was understood to be at her husband’s bedside.

Orlando von Einsiedel said he had been in contact with him about the documentary’s debut.

Although the shooting was tragic, he said, it had at least focused attention on the threats facing Virunga. “Emmanuel is very conscious about that too,” Mr Von Einsiedel said. “He’s like, ‘I’m getting better. Now let’s go and make a lot of noise’.”