Situated near the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Virunga National Park is a UNESCO site internationally known for its unique ecosystem and wildlife. The park also shares a border with the gorilla-filled forest of Volcanoes N.P. in Rwanda, and visitors to both regions have the opportunity of tracking these magnificent primates between the two terrains.
Female Rangers Safeguarding the Last of the Mountain Gorillas
Kahambu Malilissa Solange is one of the 26 female rangers who have completed rigorous training in order to protect the last of the mountain gorillas. Here she answers a few questions about the opportunities and challenges she experiences.
"Female rangers and women here don’t typically serve in a military role. But now young girls tell me they want to be a ranger one day too. By being a female ranger, I hope I am showing other women that they can do a man’s job and succeed."
To protect Virunga’s unique ecosystem, its management authority (the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, ICCN) has enlisted over six hundred local men and women, all devoted to the park’s security. All have undergone rigorous physical training in the interests of keeping tourists safe and protecting the last-standing mountain gorillas from poachers.
We’re pleased to report that, alongside this courageous work, Virunga N.P. has been striving to attract a larger female force. By working as rangers in the Congo, local women are breaking free from traditional roles and customs, and proving their resilience, strength, and bravery. Kahambu Malilissa Solange is one of the 26 female rangers who have completed the training, and here she answers a few questions about the opportunities and challenges she experiences in her role:
Map of Virunga National Park
About Kahambu Solange
The role of a park ranger is considered as a very demanding job in safari Africa. Knowing this, can you tell us what was your motivation for pursuing this career?
We studied Ecology in school, and it was there that my interest in nature started to grow. I remember my teacher talking about the importance of preserving our forests and the wildlife that lives there. When I graduated high school, I saw that Virunga was recruiting rangers. I needed a job and was interested in working in conservation, so I applied. My application was accepted, and I completed basic training. I then became one of the first female rangers of Virunga.
What challenges, if any, did you face during your recruitment/training stage?
My male colleagues in training thought I couldn’t make it because they had never seen a female ranger before. But it was fun proving them wrong. And they eventually became very supportive.
Have you encountered any particular difficulties as a female ranger within the industry?
Again, during basic training, the men all laughed at us. They did not believe that we could be rangers. But we proved them wrong and now they support us. Being a female ranger and having a family with children is also a challenge, as we have to be on duty all the time. It’s challenging balancing home life and work life sometimes.
Do you think tourists have a positive reaction to you as a female ranger?
Oh yes, very much. The tourists are happy when they see female rangers. They like talking to us, they like taking pictures with us. They like that we are women doing a man’s job.
"I believe that Virunga is changing the situation for us in the eastern Congo, so I am proud to be a part of the team. My ranger colleagues also give me motivation when I see them working hard like me. It is also always nice when tourists come to the park, as they give us courage to carry on as they love Virunga and our work so much."
Life as a park ranger
What does your typical day as a ranger involve?
I wake up at 6:00am for physical training, and start work around 7:30am. Most of my day involves escorting tourists or being on patrol in the park.
What three things are you always on the lookout for or alert to during your patrol?
- Armed groups looking to illegally exploit the park’s resources
- Poaching snares
- Angry animals like a buffalo!
What has been your most memorable wildlife story?
I will never forget the first time I saw a forest buffalo face to face. We were trekking in dense forest around the volcanoes and stumbled upon a herd of them. I had always heard they could be aggressive, so just being in their presence made my heart race. Then, out of nowhere, one of the males charged us. I was terrified. We all ran, but he chased us anyways. Eventually, we turned around and held our ground, which spooked him and he thankfully backed down. I was so scared during the experience that I’ll remember it always.
Conservation at the forefront of Virunga National Park
Virunga is home to 300 individual mountain gorillas. How do you and your colleagues protect them?
Virunga rangers track the gorilla populations every day and have patrol posts located around the gorilla sector. We work with the community to identify beneficial projects that give the local population incentive to protect the park and gorillas. Also, revenue from tourism goes back to help support gorilla conservation.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced with the gorillas?
Human encroachment on the park is a big challenge for Virunga. High population density pushes villages very close to the park boundaries. Gorillas are typically docile animals who spend most of their day eating and sleeping in the forest; however, they occasionally leave the forest and end up in farmers’ fields. It can cause tension with the population, but we recently installed an electric fence that reduces incidents like that.
Apart from mountain gorillas, are there any other wildlife species in Virunga that need your special attention?
Virunga National Park is the most biologically diverse protected area on the African continent. Hundreds of different animal species call Virunga home and are in need of protection. Not many people realise it, but we also have vulnerable populations of two other Great Ape taxa – the eastern chimpanzee and the eastern lowland gorilla. The forest and savanna buffalo, forest and savanna elephant, hippopotamus, lion, and leopard are also important animals in need of protection in the park. Personally, I love all of Virunga’s animals except baboons!
What does the future hold for wildlife conservation in Virunga?
The future of conservation in Virunga is bright. We are on the right path to making a lasting impact in the region by working together with the communities to conserve the park. If the community is on board with our initiatives, the park is more likely to be preserved for generations to come.
Mountain Gorilla Groups of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
For more information on discovering Virunga National Park, check out the related blog posts below. Alternatively, you can get in touch with one of our Congo travel experts on +44 020 8547 2305 or email us at [email protected].