It's the most dangerous job in the world - armed poachers and rebel groups outnumber the rangers by 10 to one, and over the past 15 years, more than 140 rangers have been killed in the line of duty
It began as just another day in the office for Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, but he will always remember how it unfolded into a moment of horror most of us have only seen in gruesome fiction....
Watching as armed men prepared for his execution, the park ranger from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) told his co-workers who were standing nearby to "keep up the fight and protect the natural park," believing, as he did, he would not survive the night. He had been taken by a military squad at night and remembers: "They took me out of my home and began torturing me in front of my own rangers."
When the onlookers were told they would never see Katembo again, he told them: "Don't cry. I know that I'm going to die, but we must never give up."
Evidently, Katembo survived the mock execution back in 2011 and now the star of the Netflix documentary Virunga - which shows how he went undercover and risked his own life to expose corruption and protect Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site - he is the winner of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa.
Nestled on the country's eastern borders to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa's oldest national park, Virunga, established in 1925, is an attractive spot for ecotourism and provides a crucial refuge to a quarter of the world's critically endangered mountain gorillas - there are only 880 left in the wild. Also lions, elephants and okapis roam the 7,800 square-kilometre park comprising savanna, forests, swamps, lava plains, active volcanoes and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori mountains. It is also rich in precious metals, gemstones and fossil fuels.
We meet in London, the first stop in a long line of press appearances and awards ceremonies leading up to the prize ceremonies in San Francisco and Washington DC that have taken place over recent weeks. Reserved and suspicious of the situation at first, he perks up when we speak about his new job at the Upemba National Park near Lusinga in the south of the country, where he is now chief warden. Less well known than Virunga, the wildlife conserve is facing an array of similar threats from armed rebel groups, illegal resource extraction and habitat destruction, which he is eager bring under the spotlight.
Most dangerous job in the world
But his small team have scarce resources and little support. Winning the prize gives him the boost in courage he needs to keep going, says the 41-year-old. "It's very important for my career and my whole life, because usually, as a ranger working in conservation in Congo, you are isolated in faraway areas, and you never realise that your work is recognised. It gives me a great sense of responsibility."
With the goal of protecting Upemba's natural resources from poachers and miners, the courageous rangers set out into the forests knowing they may never return. "It's the most dangerous job in the world," Katembo says. Armed poachers and rebel groups outnumber the rangers by 10 to one, and over the past 15 years more than 140 of them have been killed in the line of duty, according to the Goldman Prize.
And yet they keep going. A ranger since 2003 and no stranger to heavy firearms, Katembo grew up in conflict-ridden Congo where he was a child soldier until rescued by his mother. He then went back to school to study biology, as he "always wanted to be part of the wildlife service since a young boy."
"It was natural for me to become a ranger, and especially for Virunga. I feel that I have realised my life's purpose," he adds.
A success story... but he still lives in fear
With little emotion he describes the moment when he thought he would be killed and the events leading up to it. The undercover investigation which eventually helped stop the oil exploration by British mining company SOCO International began in 2011. During an early-morning elephant patrol, he spotted four suspicious-looking pick-up vehicles entering the park. "I was with my rangers in a Land Rover, and the cars came towards us. I thought maybe they were having some trouble, because I was also there to protect the communities," he says.
But they were there to meet him, and when they demanded that they talk in his office, he sensed trouble. "They said they were from SOCO and that they wanted to work in the park and construct a big base there." The Congolese government had sold the company the rights to explore for oil in an area called Block V, which extends into the park. They came waving their permits, but with Virunga being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Kapembo felt it was his duty to stop them and to uphold international law. "The law of conservation says there is no extraction possible in a protected area."
They then tried to bribe him into looking the other way as they set up their exploration base by the river. But Rodrigue, then station chief, refused. "I said: I don't accept this kind of corruption and I don't want your money. Go away." They also tried to bribe his squads, but they also stood firm under his leadership.
He planned the investigation together with the park director Emmanuel Merode to gather evidence. "We realised that the company had been able to bribe and corrupt many officials within the government, military, provincial authorities, community leaders and traditional leaders." In collaboration with film director Orlando von Einsiedel and investigative journalists, he recorded footage of SOCO and its contractors offering bribes and discussing illegal activities.
Threats and more bribes followed as the team found that the corruption stretched beyond the mining companies, including that night when he thought he would die. "They tried to humiliate me and said 'what you have done is against our country'. I said ‘no, what I've been doing is not against the country, it's the law, because oil exploration in a protected area is illegal'."
Katembo was arrested and tortured for 17 days, after which he was transferred to Upemba, where he is now director, but he still lives separated from his wife and children for their protection.
Upemba is a biodiverse area of some 1,800 species and the only national park in DRC with zebra and cheetah populations. It's also home the critically endangered Upemba lechwe antelope, which is seriously threatened. Commercial poaching throughout the 1980s reduced populations from around 20,000 individuals to under 1000 estimated today. But overall, the park's main threat is illegal mining, he says, as "mining activities are always linked to poaching, deforestation and instability."
"These armed groups are living from wildlife crimes, poaching, illegal natural resource extraction. And what you also see now is that some of the mining companies that are also in the area are using these armed groups to extract minerals and are also giving arms in exchange for the minerals," he adds.
Coltan mining a serious threat
Katembo tells me in particular he has seen more interest in coltan, a metal used in smartphones and other technologies. "Coltan mining is certainly increasing and they have been doing explorations within the park."
But tackling this means hard work. Upemba does not have the same official legal protection as Virunga and is even more vulnerable. Despite this, Katembo's team helped shut down eight quarries in 2016. "I have been able to expel 1,400 people from the park that were exploiting coltan."
With GPS, a little food, first aid kits and hopefully enough ammunition, the patrols set off early in the morning and may sometimes be out for days. Katembo says their resources aren't nearly enough to compete with the manpower and funds commanded by large mining companies, who keep returning. His dream is to secure more legal protection for the park. "There is a big need of an intervention from the international community to try tackle this problem, because you can't tackle it purely from within the park."
Despite beatings, threats and forced separation from his loved ones, Katembo keeps going, motivated by a desire to work toward a greater good. He now hopes the Goldman Prize will help draw attention to a petition to save Upemba which he aims to bring to the authorities. "We hope to collect as many signatures as possible, so that we can present it to UNESCO and the DRC government."
The Goldman Environmental Prize
Katemba is one of six winners, one for each of the continental regions, of the Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded annually to men and women who take great personal risks to safeguard the environment. The award was created in 1989 by civic leaders and philanthropists Richard N. Goldman and his wife, Rhoda H. Goldman.
Learn more here: www.goldmanprize.org
Sophie Morlin-Yron is a freelance writer based in London. Twitter: @sophiemyron