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Why is Virunga National Park so Vital for Conservation?

Virunga national park is one of Africa’s most biodiverse protected areas and is home to one third of the world’s wild mountain gorillas. It is also special because it’s located in a zone of protracted violent conflict: eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The conflict in this region defies easy explanation. It involves over 130 armed groups and is driven by a complex range of factors. These include conflict over land and natural resources, struggles around local authority – for instance, about the succession of chiefs – interference by neighbouring countries and militarised political competition. Moreover, over the past five to seven years, the park guards have increasingly become a specific target of some of the numerous armed groups hiding and operating in the park. This can, in part, be explained by the rangers’ increasing efforts to halt illegal natural resources exploitation in the park, such as the production of charcoal and illegal fishing, which are important sources of revenue for many armed groups. Some of these efforts entail close collaboration with the Congolese army, such as joint patrols, intelligence sharing and sometimes joint operations. For rebel groups, this is a reason to consider the park guards a threat to their spheres of influence, sources of revenue and even existence. Armed groups also once kidnapped tourists, which was aimed at sabotaging the park’s tourism potential.