The Miracle of the East

If you’ve seen the film, then you’ll know exactly what this post’s about: the makings of a latter day miracle.

Some 3000 square kilometres large, a UNESCO world heritage site, Virunga is Africa’s oldest National Park. It’s home to half of the world’s remaining mountain gorilla. It is also located in what until very recently has been one of the continent’s most volatile regions, it’s mixed habitat and resources a magnet for marauding factions, illegal loggers, poachers and the oil interests of various international companies, not least Britain’s SOCO International.

The subject of Orlando von Einsiedel’s extraordinary documentary, the park reopened last year, in the main because of the enduring work of its chief warden Emmanuel de Merode, gorilla caretaker Andre Bauma and their team of rangers. I won’t be spoiling Virunga when I say that De Merode was actually shot during the filming, and that the attack could have come from any number of sources.

Pushed into a very public corner by an umbrella group of pressure groups, high profile celebrities and the conservationist activities of UNESCO, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Global Witness and the WWF, SOCO International has made some moves in the right direction, agreeing not to ‘undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park’ unless otherwise permitted by UNESCO and the Congolese government.

However, despite the end of the war, the park’s official opening, Virunga National Park remains vulnerable to local and international exploitation. On the ground reports show evidence of SOCO jockeying for position, their interests the antithesis of De Merode’s Virunga Alliance vision, which sees eco-tourism, renewable energy and the growth of secondary eco-industries as the way forward. As De Merode has said, the choice is stark: oil or the environment.

Which, of course, is where the likes of Journeys by Design come in: Virunga National Park may not, for the moment, make the average tourist’s top ten wild Africa destinations, but for a sizable minority of frontier-orientated travellers it’s a bucket list must. Whether accessed by helicopter or vehicle, the park’s an absolute wonder, its main fixed accommodation, Mikeno Lodge, a proper luxury getaway. As in the case of all vulnerable wild habitats, I feel, as responsible operators, it’s our duty to do all that we can to add value to Virunga. It’s an asset of extraordinary significance, and one that, if De Merode’s vision is realised, should help bring lasting peace to the region.

The phrase life-changing is a much overused in our business, but in the case of the potential of Virunga National Park, it couldn’t be truer. We’re in. I hope you are too.

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