Suspected members of an armed militia ambushed and killed five rangers and a driver in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday, park authorities said, in the deadliest attack yet at what is already one of the most dangerous conservation sites in the world.
A sixth ranger was wounded but survived the attack, park authorities said in a press release.
Established in 1925, Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is best-known for hosting the critically endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). But it has also been beset by the long-running conflict in the eastern DRC, with armed rebels, militias and poachers encroaching deep into the park. The latest ambush was the deadliest yet in a long list of attacks that have claimed the lives of 175 park rangers to date, the authorities said.
“We are profoundly saddened by the loss of our colleagues yesterday,” chief warden and park director Emmanuel de Merode said in the statement. “Virunga has lost some extraordinarily brave rangers who were deeply committed to working in service of their communities. It is unacceptable that Virunga’s rangers continue to pay the highest price in defense of our common heritage and we are devastated that their lives have been cut short in this way.”
Those killed in the ambush were named as rangers Jean de Dieu Byamungu, 25; Barthelemie Kakule Mulewa, 28; Théodore Kasereka Prince, 25; Liévin Mumbere Kasumba, 28, and Kananwa Sibomana, 22; and park staff driver Ila Muranda, 30.
“We send our deepest condolences to the families, wives and children they leave behind and remain committed to creating a better future for eastern Congo,” de Merode said.
Park authorities blamed the ambush on the Mai-Mai militia, an umbrella term for the disparate armed groups that remain active in the eastern DRC provinces of North and South Kivu, near the border with Rwanda.
Monday’s attack in the central sector of the 7,800-square-kilometer (3,000-square-mile) park came just over a week after an armed group killed yet another park ranger, Faustin Biriko Nzabakurikiza, on April 1. Nzabakurikiza leaves behind a pregnant wife and 10-month-old child.
Park authorities have since 2007 run a Fallen Rangers Fund to support the families of Virunga rangers killed in the line of duty.