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Environment

This Former Child Soldier Won an Award for Risking His Life for Congo’s Wildlife

The oldest national park in Africa, the Virunga National Park, consists of more than 3,000 miles of volcanoes, forests, and mountain glaciers that cut right through the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. Elephants, lions, and one quarter of the world’s last remaining gorillas roam the lush terrain.

But for years, oil exploration has crept into the park, bringing with it waves of corruption and pollution.

Park ranger, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, has one of the most dangerous jobs in the region.

For the past 20 years, Katembo — now 41 and a former child soldier — has been beaten, threatened, and imprisoned by armed poachers and rebels, simply for protecting the park’s wildlife.

More than 160 of his colleagues have been killed by militia groups, which outnumber the park rangers ten to one, according to CNN.

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And yet despite it all, Katembo refuses to let up until those trying to destroy the park’s wildlife “are held responsible for their actions.”

In 2010, the Congolese government sold SOCO International, a British oil company, the right to drill for oil in an area known as Block V, which extends into the park. Because of the park’s status as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, conservationists said the move was entirely illegal.

Katembo’s dangerous work involved going undercover to expose evidence of bribery and corruption, and stirred public outrage. It inspired the creation of the Netflix documentary series called “Virunga,” produced by Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and ultimately forced the company to withdraw from the project in 2014.

In 2013, the park ranger was illegally arrested and held for 17 days for reasons he believes that have to do with his attempt to block the construction of an “oil communication device” within the park.

He has received phone calls in the past telling him: “You have betrayed the country … You deserve to die.”

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Others have tried to bribe him, including local chiefs that have proposed figures nearly five times the amount of his annual salary.

For his efforts, Katembo received this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental leaders across the globe.

His affinity and love for wildlife, he told CNN, started when he was young.

In 1989, at 14-years-old, he was forced to serve as a child soldier during the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil conflict. Jumping from one rebel group to another, Katembo would remain a soldier for eight long years.

In 2003, during a moment of peace in the war-torn country, he began his work at Virunga in an effort to heal the community and protect the wildlife.

"The park brings a lot of different kinds of services that are benefiting the community," he told CNN. "For instance you have the protected fisheries where many fishermen are able to sustain their families and are able to generate income."

Virunga’s protection provides economic opportunities to 3,500 employees, as well as ecotourism operators and a small hydroelectric plant. It also ensures communities’ access to food and water.

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In 2015, Katembo became the director of Upemba National Park in the southern region of the DRC, where he continues a similar fight against armed poachers and gold and emerald miners encroaching on the under-resourced park and threatening its biodiversity.

“Thanks to his leadership, dozens of elephants have returned to the park,” the directors of the Goldman Environmental Prize said in a statement on their website. “Zebra numbers are on the rise, while deforestation is decreasing.”

Last year, he shut down eight quarries  responsible for illegally mining for coltan — a metal oftentimes used in smartphones.

“Even if I or others are not able to (hold those responsible for their actions),” he said, “then the future generations will have this information and will do it.”