Very few people can truly be described as heroes but that term certainly applies to the people protecting Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Park Director, Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga’s Head of AirWing, Anthony Caere, and their team of brave park rangers risk their lives daily in the fight to protect the park and its animals from exploitation. To recognize their selfless commitment, Emmanuel and Anthony were awarded the Albert Schweitzer Award in October 2016 at a gala organized by Last Chance For Animals (LCA), who has partnered with Virunga to donate vital necessities such as airplane bush wheels, mobile LED airstrip lighting and tool chests to the AirWing. LCA’s most significant and sizeable donation to date, with help from the Cindy & Michael Landon Foundation, is a Cessna 206 airplane, that will join Virunga’s AirWing program in January 2017.

Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern DRC, on the border of Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and is also the continent’s most biologically diverse protected area. Virunga is home to approximately one fourth of the 900 critically endangered mountain gorillas that exist only in the wild. The park’s two other Great Ape species, eastern lowland Grauer’s gorillas and chimpanzees, make Virunga the only park in the world to host three groups of Great Apes. Another prominent inhabitant of the park is the Okapi. Large colonies of hippopotami, forest and savanna elephants, lions, and numerous rare bird species can also be found in the park.

Throughout its history, Virunga has been deeply affected by the country’s political climate. The park has endured many periods of armed conflict. The deep commitment of Virunga’s rangers, key politicians, conservationists, and concerned individuals around the world have enabled the park to survive. Over the past 20 years, Virunga’s rangers have endured an almost uninterrupted series of challenges. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide unleashed a flood of more than one million refugees who placed tremendous pressure on the park forests and wildlife. In addition, Congo’s civil wars, which began in 1996, nearly devastated the park. In 2007, members of an illegal charcoal mafia murdered a family of seven mountain gorillas. The event was arguably the park’s darkest hour in over a decade. Their motivation was simple: kill the mountain gorillas and there will no longer be a reason to protect the park.

Despite the fighting having abated in recent years, Virunga park rangers still face life and death situations every day. The execution of two rangers in March 2016 by anti-government rebels has pushed deaths of the guardians of this vast reserve above 150 during the past decade. In addition, Director de Merode, was shot multiple times in a 2014 assassination attempt.

LCA’s Save The Mountain Gorilla campaign is a long-standing commitment that began in 2006 to provide equipment to African Wildlife Authorities in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. LCA is proud to provide support for Emmanuel, Anthony and the park rangers in their valiant efforts to fight poaching and rebel militias in Virunga National Park.

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