Virunga Documentary Honours Defenders Of Few Living Mountain Gorillas

By Steve McLean 4/25/14 |

Virunga National Park director Emmanuel de Merode was attacked and shot by gunmen two days before the premiere of Virunga.
The story of the Congo is largely a tragic one, and one of its sad chapters involves Virunga National Park, the subject of a new documentary bearing the park's name from British director Orlando von Einsiedel. It's a tale of guerillas versus gorillas and corporations versus conservationists.

The film will be screened in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at: 9 p.m. on April 28 at TIFF Bell Lightbox; 3:30 p.m. on April 29 at Scotiabank Theatre; 8:30 p.m. on May 1 at TIFF Bell Lightbox; and 9:30 p.m. on May 3 at Isabel Bader Theatre.

Virunga was established in 1925 and is Africa’s oldest national park, but it sits precariously near the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda. This is a land largely ruled by rebels, militias, poachers and corporations looking to exploit the region's mineral and oil wealth, when it was founded to be a reserve to protect elephants, hippos, warthogs, buffaloes and, particularly, the world's dwindling number of mountain gorillas.

Emmanuel de Merode is the park's director and features prominently in Virunga. But, unfortunately, he's been in the news over the past few weeks for a different reason. Two days before the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, de Merode was attacked and shot by three gunmen while driving through the park. The 43-year-old with Belgian royalty connections will survive, but this brings to life the dangers faced by Virunga rangers even more than the gripping documentary can.

It's not known who was responsible for the attack on de Merode, but about 150 of Virunga’s 680 rangers have been killed in the past decade —  the most recent in January.

Virunga's Senkeweke Centre has the only four mountain gorillas in captivity in the world, while the park is home to about one-quarter of the 800 remaining in the wild. Their caretaker calls them his family in the film, and the plan is to reintroduce them to the wild again once conditions are safer. Nine gorillas were massacred in 2007, with the idea being that there would be no reason to protect the park anymore if the gorillas were all gone.

While negotiations resulted in an agreement with the armed rebels that they wouldn't harm the gorillas, there's still a major problem with poachers who kill the parents and sell the babies before they grow in weight, strength and intelligence.

Tourism is supposed to bring in money to help sustain conservation efforts in Virunga, but it's not easy attracting visitors to what essentially is a war zone. There are villages within the park, inhabited by impoverished people with little hope for a bright future.

So when SOCO International — a wealthy oil and gas exploration and production company headquartered in London, England — receives authorization from the Congolese government to explore for oil underneath Lake Edward, many locals see it as a way to bring in money and improve their lives.

The World Wildlife Fund has protested the legality of the government's decision since Virunga is a World Heritage site listed by UNESCO as "in danger."


Through the use of hidden cameras, the film allegedly shows SOCO supporters, sub-contractors and representatives discussing bribes with locals in return for seeing things their way and promising that prosperous development will come to the people if SOCO starts producing oil in the park.

SOCO claims it does everything legitimately and by the book, while company operations manager Julien Lechenault is filmed secretly by a French female journalist saying the company has to compare the value of oil to the value of conservation to see if it's worth it to start production. He suggests the solution is to recolonize Congo because it can't govern itself and disdainfully says, "Who gives a shit about a fucking monkey?"

SOCO has objected to the documentary and, in the interest of journalistic fairness, the filmmakers have included the company's response and its lengthy list of complaints with it at the end of Virunga. The company says that Lechenault and a security sub-contractor named John no longer work for SOCO and it "denies any knowledge of the security contractor filmed making a payment and does not in any way condone his actions."

It's a complex story in a complicated part of Africa, but Virunga succeeds in telling the story of a group of brave people risking their lives to build a better future in a place that many folks in the rest of the world don't seem to care about.

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