Virunga’s park rangers often encounter armed rebel and illegal wildlife traffickers as they guard conservation areas.
Ranger Freddy Mahamba Muliro died on March 7. He was working in the central zone of Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and critical wildlife ecosystem known for its mountain gorillas and forests covering nearly 800,000 hectares.
It’s also an extremely dangerous place for Virunga’s park rangers, who often encounter armed rebel groups and illegal wildlife traffickers, sometimes both, as they guard the conservation areas. There are 175 Virunga rangers who have died before Muliro.
“It is a tragedy that his young life has been cut short,” said park director Emmanuel de Merode. “Now more than ever, Ranger Freddy’s death highlights the very real threats to our rangers in their protection of Virunga National Park.”
What Virunga learned, though, is that the threat extends to the families of the Virunga rangers – there are usually about 600 of them – who count on spouses or children to support them. While there are women serving as Virunga rangers, most of the rangers are still men, and adding to the grief when they’re lost is worry over what will happen to their wives and children.
So in 2007, Virunga established a Fallen Rangers Fund to assist families during a difficult transition, and in recent years the park built employment centers to offer ranger widows a way to make a modest income.
“The workshop was created to help widows regain a sense of control over their lives after suffering the devastating loss of their ranger husbands,” the park said. “These women have faced challenges that most people can’t even imagine.”
A new center was built in October 2016 in Rumangabo, a town at the forest’s edge in the southern sector of Virunga toward the Rwandan border. Women who come to the center learn sewing skills and jewelry making, and have access to a range of classes on entrepreneurship, finances and related topics. They also benefit from being together because they have shared experiences on the same difficult road.
The second Mutsora facility opened in September 2017 in the Virunga National Park’s northern sector, so that women living many kilometers apart would have access to the same opportunities and resources. Virunga itself is the sewing center’s “first customer,” because the fallen rangers’ wives mend the uniforms and repair the shoes of those guarding the breathtaking park and its vulnerable wildlife.
The women also create curtains, table linens, jams and soaps, and gifts for the Virunga visitors center. Their products find themselves in the gift shops of other botanical gardens and zoos who order in bulk – including an October 2018 order for 14,000 bracelets on short notice that took some teamwork.
While mothers are working, children are nearby at an on-site facility that provides care and education, and any women who cannot read or write themselves are encouraged to learn. If the women need to stay home, there is a separate training program for developing their skills independently.
Ranger Freddy Mahamba Muliro wasn’t the first to die in the line of duty, and sadly, he won’t be the last to leave a family behind. Each time there is another, a new star is added to a mural in the women’s collective center, a reminder that some have given all to protect Virunga National Park and its priceless treasures.