There’s a battle being fought at the heart of Africa, where rebel insurgents and the hunt for oil threaten Virunga National Park’s precious mountain gorillas. T+L reports on the pioneers who, by inviting the world in, are helping to save one of the planet’s most extraordinary ecosystems.

The view from the cockpit on a helicopter safari over Virunga National Park
The view from the cockpit on a helicopter safari over Virunga National Park.
| Credit: Tom Parker

It was 3 a.m. on a moonless night in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I was unable to sleep. Perhaps it was the altitude. I was camped on the lip of a volcano at 11,400 feet, my mattress protected from the elements by a small A-frame hut. Far below, Mount Nyiragongo’s stew of lava glowed redder than blood. Growing restless, I got up and sat as close to the mile-wide crater as I dared, just a few feet from the edge. The wind whipped at my layers as I stared down into the swirling liquid, its surface a mosaic of steam and bubbles that sporadically spit and burst.

There beside Nyiragongo’s vast bowl, I couldn’t forget what had come before, the last time the volcano blew. It can, at times, contain a higher volume of lava than any other crater in the world, and when it exploded on January 17, 2002, lava flooded down its slopes in a stream that in places grew to more than half a mile wide. Unstoppable, it made its way to Goma, 12 miles away, at a time when the city, deep in the midst of civil war, already looked like hell on earth. More than a tenth of the city was destroyed, 400,000 people were evacuated, and whole communities were left homeless.

If it felt like I was sitting beside the earth’s volatile, beating heart, in many ways I was. Mount Nyiragongo is one of two active volcanoes in a string of eight known collectively as the Virungas. This mighty range straddles three countries and forms the divide between English- and French-speaking Africa. The mountains are protected by three contiguous reserves: Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, and Virunga National Park in the eastern DRC. Between them, they cover some 3,000 square miles of territory at Africa’s geographical center. They are also a key continental watershed, their springs feeding both the Congo and the Nile rivers. All this makes the Virungas the regional axis around which everything seems to turn, with the area contained within the DRC the wildest and most undiscovered of all. The crater of Mount Nyiragongo, which is more than a mile wide and frequently contains more lava than any other volcano on earth. Tom Parker

The eastern DRC is one the world’s richest sources of gold, diamonds, and tantalum, a mineral used to make mobile phones. It is also thought to contain enormous untapped oil reserves. (The controversial plans of a London-based oil and gas company called SOCO International to explore Virunga were revealed in Virunga, a compelling documentary nominated for an Academy Award this year.) There are numerous ethnic tensions in the area, where groups joined by ethnicity or history have been split by random borders drawn up by the Virunga region’s former German, Belgian, and British colonizers. There is also huge population pressure: more than 1,000 people per square mile live on the southern periphery of Virunga National Park—a density higher than that of Belgium.

This combination of complex governance across borders and pressure on natural resources—much of them contained within areas set aside for conservation—is a major source of the DRC’s multilayered conflict. It all came to a head in 1994, when ethnic tension exploded into genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Up to a million people died in a period of six months, with refugees spilling over into the DRC (then known as Zaire). With them came some of the perpetrators—Rwanda’s Interahamwe Hutu killing gangs, which began attacking groups aligned with Rwanda and Uganda.

In 1996, these countries responded by invading. This was the First Congo War, which ousted Zaire’s president, Mobutu Sese Seko. When the new leader, Laurent Kabila, failed to stem ethnic tension in the country, Uganda and Rwanda invaded again, in what was to become the Second Congo War. This officially ended in July 2003. It was an extended period of anarchy, one in which rebel militias thrived. Though a 2013 UN mission had some success in subduing the insurgents, some are still based in the DRC. They subsist on any kind of extractive industry, from poaching to illegal fishing, and their activities often seep into the 1.9 million acres that make up Virunga National Park. A ranger on patrol in Virunga National Park. Tom Parker

For one group in particular, it was a crisis beyond reckoning: the rare mountain gorillas, to whom the Virunga mountains are home. Since the 1970s, they had been at the forefront of a conservation struggle spearheaded by American primatologist Dian Fossey, who in 1977 saw her favorite gorilla beheaded and his hands later made into ashtrays that were sold for $20 apiece.

The primates’ curious role in the narrative of the Virungas hit a new low on July 24, 2007, when an alpha silverback was killed in the DRC. He had been shot along with four females, two with babies and one pregnant, at a time when the world’s population of this critically endangered creature stood at 700—200 of which lived in the eastern DRC. An iconic photograph taken by Brent Stirton and published in Newsweek showed the dead silverback from above, splayed on a makeshift wooden stretcher and carried through the jungle by 15 men. The gorilla’s fingers were curled like those of a sleeping child. Thin plaited grass bound its wrists, belly, and thighs to the stretcher, in a pose that brought to mind the Crucifixion.

In this case, the killers weren’t the poachers familiar to Fossey, but militias who were illegally harvesting wood to make charcoal, and wanted to scare off the park’s protectors. The incident was a warning to the ICCN, the government organization that managed the park, to stay away. Lawlessness did set in when, 15 months later, in October 2008, Congolese Tutsi warlord Laurent Nkunda captured the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park, where DRC’s gorillas live, and took over the park’s headquarters in Rumangabo. It would be another seven years, and a great deal more conflict, before the park would be opened up to the world again. One of a series of pristine water holes in Virunga National Park, as seen from a helicopter safari. Tom Parker

I arrived in the DRC on February 25 of this year, landing in a helicopter on the perfectly mowed lawn of that same Rumangabo headquarters, as the national flag of the DRC flapped in the wind. The terraced colonial building was built in 1934, nine years after Belgium’s Prince Albert I first declared the area a national park. The helicopter’s arrival was saluted by a troop of neatly booted park rangers, including a number of women, dressed identically to the men in military khakis and dark green berets. Dogs barked from kennels, including two springer spaniels trained to sniff out firearms by London’s Metropolitan Police. With me was Elvis Mutiri wa Bashara, the DRC’s new minister of tourism, and the park’s director, Emmanuel De Merode.

A Belgian prince born in North Africa and raised in Kenya, De Merode has been in office since September 2008, when he was appointed by the government to bring Virunga National Park back under control. He immediately opened up lines of communication not only with the DRC army but also with the rebel leaders, including Nkunda. He hired staff, equipped and trained them, and ensured that their families would be taken care of should anyone lose their lives.

I had come to see the results of De Merode’s seven-year push—during which 22 of the park’s 300 rangers had been killed in the line of duty. “Ending a war is about job creation—job creation for men who would otherwise take up arms,” De Merode told me. “If you don’t start building for peace during war, then you never break the cycle.” There are still risks, at every level. De Merode was shot by three gunmen in an ambush in April last year, and the assailants remain at large. They could have been one of any number of enemies De Merode has made while pursuing his uncompromising conservation mandate.

De Merode’s agenda includes creating a tourism industry around the gorillas. In February 2012, Virunga launched a new government-owned flagship lodge, Mikeno, adjacent to the park’s headquarters. Almost inevitably, it was afflicted by a false start. Two months after it opened, a rebel militia called the M23 occupied parts of the reserve. This forced the lodge’s closure to tourists, although journalists and soldiers continued to use the facilities. The DRC army flushed the M23 rebels out of the park at the end of 2013. Late last year, travelers began to trickle back in.

Before setting off to camp on Mount Nyiragongo, I spent a night at Mikeno, which was running at 100 percent occupancy. I was impressed by the elegant simplicity of its 12 thatched-roof cottages, which occupy a sun-drenched clearing in the emerald Afro-montane forest. Inside my hut, the bed was soft and the shower was steaming hot. Most welcome of all was the easy, reassuring presence of the lodge’s staff. Rangers patrolling Mount Nyiragongo. Tom Parker

From my cottage I could wander over to the Senkwekwe Center, where three orphaned gorillas are being raised by park rangers—the only mountain gorillas in the world currently living in captivity. Normally the wardens would have included André Bauma, who featured prominently in the film Virunga, but Bauma was away when I visited, attending the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood.

Mountain gorillas, in the orphanage or in the wild, aren’t Virunga’s only draw. New initiatives include chimpanzee safaris from either Mikeno or Bukima, a new camp made up of crisp canvas tents, each with a hot bucket shower and a private terrace looking up at Mount Mikeno.

But as I talked with my fellow guests at Mikeno, I came to realize that, for sophisticated travelers, the real purpose of a visit to Virunga is to gain an understanding of what’s at stake—to appreciate why people are willing to risk their lives to protect this extraordinary place. For this, I was privileged enough to experience a new helicopter safari being spearheaded by two of the park’s most important tourism pioneers: Kate Doty, managing director of the high-end branch of Geographic Expeditions—an outfitter specializing in trips to challenging parts of the world—and Ben Simpson, director of helicopter operations for Tropic Air in Kenya. Simpson, who made his name opening up lesser-known parts of Africa to air safaris, started exploring DRC’s tourism potential in 2012, after going on humanitarian and conservation-oriented missions in the area. A valley in the Rwenzori Mountains, known as Mountains of the Moon. Tom Parker

Between them, Doty and Simpson exposed me not only to the adrenaline of a helicopter safari but also to the geography underlying this unique environment. And if I was nervous about the disconnect between a $2,500-an-hour helicopter ride and the extreme circumstances of the people living on the ground, I was also in some ways reassured: according to Doty, several clients had already made six-figure donations to conservation-related projects after taking a safari.

Bit by bit, I started to feel at ease in the air, too—even with the doors off, flying 70 feet above the forest floor, skimming the tops of huge Hagenia trees shrouded in mist and moss. We flew over the grave of American naturalist Carl Akeley, who came to the Virungas to hunt gorillas in 1921, soon after the species was discovered (the five gorillas Akeley shot are still on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York). We followed the bends of the Lulimi River and saw bursts of Egyptian geese break cover across spongy marshlands bristling with life. We made for the shores of Lake Edward, where tiny fishing pirogues looked lost on water as far-reaching as an inland sea, and skirted sandy river banks threading the forest’s edge in gold. We flew up into the Rwenzoris, known as Mountains of the Moon, over snowfields and glaciers, and watched a line of climbers pick their way up the Ugandan side of the 16,763-foot Margherita Peak. The cloud moved in quickly; the updraft caught us in its breath; we rose higher and higher, to 17,000 feet, until Simpson, with the agility of a bird, dropped down the western flanks to fly over a narrow ravine where giant ferns burst up from the depths of crevices impenetrable on foot. It was as if I were flying into the veins of the earth. My heart was beating so quickly I felt like it was flatlining, pounding away with too much life.

When we hit Virunga’s clear-water springs, it was if we had entered the eastern DRC’s heart of lightness. A string of cobalt pools, brighter than a South Pacific sea, were flanked by reeds that flowed like chestnut tresses through a network of streams. Where the encircling vegetation was at its thickest, the cobalt turned to jade. Where the water was at its clearest—filtered by the lava through which it runs—I could see the pink skin of the hippos basking alongside giant, fat-bellied crocodiles too lazy to scuttle into the water at the sound of our hovering blades.

I was looking down on one of the most biologically diverse slivers of the continent, home to more than half of Africa’s birds, 40 percent of its mammals, and about 20 percent of its amphibian and plant species. “You get everything you find in Uganda and Rwanda in a single park,” said De Merode over the helicopter’s headphones. For me, looking down on the topography formed by the seismically active Albertine Rift changed everything. From this bird’s-eye view, I witnessed the trauma of the landscape, and gained a better understanding of how our planet was formed. Sunrise on Mount Nyiragongo. Tom Parker

Sparse black lava fields covered the flatlands, including a tongue of lava from Nyiragongo’s eruption in 2002. When I visited 13 years after that blast, the lava hadn’t been cleared from Goma’s airstrip. But as this article went to press, Mutiri wa Bashara confirmed the airport would be cleared to receive international flights in June.

The minister of tourism, like De Merode, seemed determined for Virunga National Park to succeed, but he was just 75 days into the job when I met him, in a country that has been without a minister of tourism for the past 10 years. (As of 2014, the DRC was ranked Africa’s third most unstable country in the Fragile States Index, compiled by the Washington, D.C.–based think tank Fund for Peace.) Lunch on the veranda at Mikeno Lodge. Tom Parker

It wasn’t always this way. In a much wilder swath of the park, the Central Sector, we wandered through the shot-out, government-owned Rwindi Hotel, closed in 1992 when it was overrun by militias, and later occupied by Hutu rebels. Walking beside the empty swimming pool, overgrown with purple bougainvillea, Mutiri wa Bashara told me: “We stayed here every year for twenty years for our family holidays. My children saw their first elephants here.”

In February, the only hint of savanna wildlife was an old sign reading: “In case of wild animals, do not leave your bungalow at night.” As I headed back to the helicopter, I found a soldier’s helmet in the grass and, beside it, elephant bones. I looked at them for a while, and wondered why I didn’t feel depressed. Instead I felt energized by the knowledge someone was taking on this legacy and trying to turn it around. Virunga deserves it; the eastern DRC needs it; the potential is exponential, so long as De Merode and his supporters can prove that conservation, and tourism, pay. An orphaned mountain gorilla at the Senkwekwe Center, home to the only three mountain gorillas currently living in captivity. Tom Parker

I fervently hope his mission succeeds, because a more compelling area of Africa is hard to conceive of. Nor have I met a population that so greatly needs to break out of the cycle of conflict. Like Nyiragongo’s crater, tensions here will no doubt continue to bubble, and very possibly erupt again. But in times of stability, these mountains are exhilarating in their beauty—to me, the most compelling terrain of the entire Virunga ecosystem. That night sleeping on a precipice—my last in the DRC—there was nowhere I would have rather been than in Africa’s spectacular, complicated heart.

All photographs by Tom Parker