This gorilla might owe its life to a heroic park warden

Rodrigue Katembo knows danger.

As a chief warden in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he put his life on the line to protect his country’s priceless natural wonders. He was imprisoned and tortured for several days for doing the work he does.

The national park, the oldest in all of Africa, is home to a significant population of the world’s surviving mountain gorillas, who share the park’s boundaries with lions, forest elephants and hippos.

More than 150 of his fellow rangers have lost their lives in the past decade at the hands of poachers and rebel groups. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has sought to protect rangers. In 2011, it piloted a program in Virunga to help the families of fallen rangers.

Rodrigue Katembo (Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize)
(Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize)

Katembo said his passion for wildlife could have been lost when he was young. In the war-torn DRC, he was forced to become a child soldier at age 14. He saw his brother killed. With his mother’s help, he escaped, and in 2003 became a wildlife protector.

Katembo won the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize, Africa, for his heroism in Virunga, including going undercover to document “bribery and corruption in the quest to drill for oil in Virunga National Park.”

“I am working for the welfare of future generations,” Katembo told the Guardian. He acknowledges the personal risk, but says, “It is really worth it to make this sacrifice.”

Today, Katembo serves as the director of Upemba National Park, located in the southeastern part of the country, where his work is already showing dividends. In 2015, no elephants lived in the park. Now, 68 roam Upemba.

“Many times as a chief warden, you take your rangers on patrol,” Katembo said. “You look at tracks and follow the wildlife, but every time you do that you are amazed at the beauty of the wildlife of Congo. Every time you see new things and make new discoveries — it’s marvelous.”