That’s why the park is a vital source for charcoal, or makala in Swahili, and for food—even though farming, fishing, hunting, and logging are all illegal. Park resources are stripped with regularity: between 2001 and 2020, Virunga lost almost 10% of its tree cover, and de Merode estimates $170 million in Virunga’s trees and ivory are lost annually. But the alternative for locals is being unable to pay local warlords or starving. These are perfect conditions for corruption.
“Congo is a bewildering place to make moral judgments,” says Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold’s Ghost, which chronicles the Belgian monarch’s harrowing 19th-century rule. Congo is further complicated by “its sheer vastness, people who speak hundreds of languages, and the colonization which was done for the purpose of extracting wealth,” he says. “Under those circumstances, it’s very hard to have a just and fair society.”
Congo has nearly as many displaced people as Ukraine, and decades of conflict despite decades of UN peacekeeping. Most stolen profits from the park go to armed rebel groups, which some locals join for lack of better options. Some are relics of past wars, most notably Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Others may be linked to the Islamic State. The largest is the M23, a Tutsi-led group so well-armed that the UN says Rwanda backs it. (Rwanda denies this, but its economy relies heavily on Congolese resources.)
As a result, Virunga may be the only UNESCO site that regularly buries its staff: over 200 rangers have been killed since 1996, on average one a month. Cherubin Nolayambaje, who has spent eight years as a ranger, calls it “the most dangerous job in the world.”
Virunga’s nearly 800 rangers, including about 35 women, often encounter armed rebels in the park and civilians farming or living there illegally. Many locals don’t even know the park’s boundaries, adds Samson Rukira, an activist in the nearby town of Rutshuru. While conservation requires community involvement to solve issues, he says, “we are in areas which are not secure, and that means maybe rangers can’t be in dialogue.”
De Merode is sympathetic to community complaints that individuals are being denied access to the park’s vast wealth. “Hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of people suffer what we hope is a short-term cost to turn this park into a positive asset. If we fail in that, we do more harm than good,” he says. “But we believe passionately that it can be turned around—this ecosystem, this park.”
His plan to do that hinges on the three hydro plants the park has opened since 2013, in Matebe, Mutwanga, and Luviro; a fourth is under construction. If you can power your home, the theory goes, you don’t need to chop trees to cook. Electricity supports new jobs and businesses, like coffee coops and chia seed production. And, of course, the Bitcoin mine.
“That’s the misconception we most want to correct: that Virunga is just about the wildlife,” de Merode continues. “No, it’s about the community through the wildlife. Our role is to try to facilitate that.” There’s no way to practice conservation in one of the world’s most troubled countries without local support, he says.