At the heart of the deadly 20-year-long civil war that rages in the Democratic Republic of Congo sits the home of the world’s last 800 mountain gorillas in Africa’s oldest national park.
Virunga National Park – and the human and gorilla populations that rely on it for their way of life – are locked in a struggle for their very existence against poachers and outside parties looking to exploit the park’s natural resources.
And a new documentary, “Virunga,” set to premiere on Netflix tomorrow, goes to the front lines of the battle to protect the park and tells the story of the park rangers who put their lives on the line to do so.
“Not only is it Africa's oldest national park, it's also home to the world's last mountain gorillas,” said the film’s director, Orlando von Einsiedel. "But this is a park which is really people-focused. It really represents one of the best chances the region has to push forward.”
Einsiedel sat down recently for an interview with “Power Players” along with the director of Virunga National Park, Emmanuel de Merode, who is one of the main subjects in the documentary and a recent victim of the violence that threatens the park.
In April, De Merode was shot in an apparent assassination attempt. “I was taken in an ambush, and I was shot in the chest and the stomach, but I was very lucky,” he said.
While De Merode had a full recovery and has now returned to work, not all of his rangers have been so fortunate.
“140 of our staff have been killed over the last 20 years since the beginning of this terrible war in eastern Congo,” De Merode said. “And the thing about that war is that it's driven by illegal transportation of natural resources. So, when you manage a national park, you are on the front line of that war.”
One of the many causes for which De Merode and his team of park rangers are fighting is the gorillas, which are targets of poaching – sometimes killed in order to clear the way for natural resource exploitation – and trafficking.
“There are only about 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and so every single individual counts,” De Merode explained. “And they came under attack in 2007. We lost 9 gorillas over a very short period, and those gorillas, when they were killed, they left baby gorillas, and so we had to recover those.”
The film also investigates the activities of a British oil company called SOCO International and exposes the company for exploring for oil within the park in violation of both Congolese and international law, with the park’s designation as a world heritage site.
“Over two years, we built up a dossier of evidence about the activities of this company and its contractors and supporters, and this dossier has serious concerns about bribery and corruption, human rights abuse, and links to rebel groups,” Einsiedel said. “Overall, this company seems to have an incredible lack of oversight over its operations on the ground in eastern Congo."
To this day, despite the film’s allegations about the company's activities, Einsiedel said SOCO has continued “business as usual,” putting the park “very much at threat."
“In June, they [SOCO] made a public announcement where they stated that they were going to halt their operations. Now, at first sight that appeared to be incredible news,” Einsiedel said. “What has actually transpired is that that announcement was almost meaningless.”
SOCO International rejects the charges leveled against the company in the documentary, saying in a statement that there are no plans for drilling in Virunga National Park.
“There are no plans for drilling and that no drilling commitment had ever been made in relation to Virunga,” SOCO International said in a statement posted to its website. “SOCO has also stated it will never seek to have operations in the Mountain Gorilla habitat, the Virunga Volcanoes or the Virunga equatorial rainforest.”
For more of the interview with Einsiedel and De Merode, and to hear more about the dangers that came with making the film, check out this episode of “Power Players.”
ABC News’ Richard Coolidge, Tom Thornton, Gary Westphalen, Melissa Young and Mary Quinn contributed to this episode.