Rodrigue Katembo, a former child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been awarded an international environmental prize for his work as a park ranger and conservationist in the country’s Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest wildlife park.
Park ranger and conservationist Rodrigue Katembo won the Goldman Environmental Prize in April 2017 for his work in preventing potentially damaging oil exploration in the park. In addition to mobilising Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) citizens to protest against the plans to drill for oil in Virunga, he also worked undercover to expose bribery and corruption of government officials by foreign oil companies.
Environmental research has shown that oil exploration in the park would threaten the habitats of the region’s critically endangered gorilla, elephant and lion populations.
The Goldman Prize, often referred to as the Green Nobel, is an annual award that recognises grassroots environmental activists in six regions around the world. The prize is awarded by the Goldman Environmental Foundation, based in San Francisco, USA.
Virunga is home to a quarter of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas — there are fewer than 900 globally. Additionally, the park, which covers more than 5,000km2 across the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda, has several delicate ecosystems. These include volcanoes, forests, river and lake systems, as well as mountain regions that, if threatened and exploited by industry, would have detrimental environmental and societal effects on the entire region.
“The park brings a lot of different kinds of services that are benefiting the community,” Katembo told CNN in April 2017. “For instance, you have the protected fisheries where many fishermen are able to sustain their families and are able to generate income.”
In addition to dealing with infringing industry, Katembo and his small but dedicated team also have to tackle international poaching syndicates and political instability from various militia groups in the area. Over the last two decades, more than 160 park rangers have been killed in armed conflict with rebels and poachers.
“[Park rangers] have paid the ultimate price for the protection of Virunga,” he said, adding that “they really fought with their heart to protect the park”.
Life as a child soldier
The decades-long political conflict and civil war in the DRC is something with which Katembo is closely familiar. He was forced by a rebel militia group, as a teenager in 1989, to become a child soldier. He fought with various groups until 2003, when a brief peace gave him the opportunity to leave that life behind and follow a lifelong dream of working with wildlife.
“Since I was very young, I really wanted to become part of the wildlife authority of Congo,” he told The Guardian in April 2017.
The ranger work, however, proved equally dangerous. In 2013, while investigating government corruption that allowed the construction of oil drills in the park, Katembo was arrested and imprisoned for 17 days. Though he was eventually released, threats and intimidation — even failed assassination attempts — against him and other rangers continued.
The Virunga documentary
This struggle and the important work done by park rangers in the DRC was the focus of a Netflix documentary produced by actor/activist Leonard DiCaprio.
Titled Virunga, the film follows rangers and conservationists in their struggle against the DRC government selling drilling rights in the park to British oil companies.
Thanks to the park’s status as a Unesco Heritage Site, as well as the international attention from the documentary, all attempts to exploit the region for oil were ended in 2014, with both continued campaigns by Virunga rangers and the World Wildlife Fund successfully keeping oil exploration out of the park.
Teaching the environmental importance of endangered regions
Winning that particular battle may have been Virunga’s most recognised success, but Katembo says it is the small victories, particularly in increasing the park’s animal population, that make him and his team the proudest. He told The Guardian: “The population of hippos in Virunga [went] from 500 to 1,700 in three to four years — that was a really important moment for me.”
In his current position as director of the Upemba National Park, in southern DRC, he has overseen a new elephant population of 68 where once there were none.
As director of Upemba, he continues to tackle the same challenges: poaching, political instability and corruption.
Once again, Katembo and his Upemba team are also combating illegal mining intrusions, particularly for gold and emeralds, but also the growing problem of coltan mining. Coltan is a highly valuable ore used in electronics manufacturing. Since 2015, the park has shut down eight large-scale coltan operations and more than a thousand small mines operated by local residents.
In accepting his Goldman award, Katembo emphasised the need for educating more people about the environmental importance of endangered regions.
He also reiterated a call for more respect for local and international conservation laws, as well as sustained support from groups, individuals and governments, in putting pressure on African countries not to be blindsided or corrupted by corporate interests.
“It is not the time to do something else,” he said in again declaring his lifelong dedication to his chosen cause. “When we see how many [groups] are trying to destroy our protected areas, we cannot stop now. If I left, that would feel like a betrayal to the protections the wildlife and national parks deserve. I also need to ensure a new generation of young Congolese are there to take up the baton.”
Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material.