Former Child Soldier Wins Goldman Environmental Prize for Protecting Wildlife

Photo: 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize).

Former child soldier turned wildlife park ranger, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, 41, is one of the six people who has been awarded the prestigious 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize for his work to protect the natural environment. The prize, given to one person from each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions, was given to Katembo for his work protecting the majestic endangered species who populate Virunga, Africa’s oldest’s national park, from oil prospectors who are keen to gain access the pristine and untapped lands of this UNESCO World Heritage site.

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At 3,000 square-miles in size, Virunga encompasses sections of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, and Rwanda. It’s lush tropical rainforest, active volcanoes, and mountain glaciers are home to the world’s last remaining population of mountain gorillas, less than 900 total, as well as elephants, lions, and hippopotamuses—making it one of the few Edenic spaces that exist on earth.

Virunga, the oldest national park in Africa and the crown jewel of Congo’s ecotourism, is an area of extraordinary biodiversity and an important habitat for mountain gorillas.

Virunga, the oldest national park in Africa and the crown jewel of Congo’s ecotourism, is an area of extraordinary biodiversity and an important habitat for mountain gorillas. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

As a park ranger, Katembo is up against the very worst: political instability, armed poachers, and rebels, who outnumber the poachers ten to one. Militias have killed more than 160 rangers over the past twenty years, as Virunga has been the site of countless skirmishes and conflicts.

The plight of park rangers has been captured in the Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary film, Virunga, executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and now airing on Netflix. The film follows Katembo and his colleagues as they confront the dangers of oil exploration and armed conflict inside Virunga. At the same time, the film exposes the noble work they do, protecting the endangered creatures and the environment for this generation and those to come.

Since he was a child growing up in the DRC, Katembo loved wildlife—but his journey to becoming a park ranger was one fraught by another kind of violence. In 1989, at the age of 14, he was kidnapped and taken as a child soldier to fight in his nation’s on-going civil war. For eight years he was forced to fight for different rebel groups, until peace was restored briefly in 2003.

Katembo returned home and joined the park rangers of Virunga, where he could use the skills he acquired in service of the protection of the environment. As a park ranger, he has faced a different kind of threat.

In 2010, the DRC government sold the rights to explore for oil to SOCO International, a British oil company, inside Virunga—despite the fact that this was a violation of UNESCO laws.

In 2013, he was arrested and held for 17 days after trying to stop construction of an oil communication device in the park. He refused bribes in the amount of $5,000­, which was five times his annual salary, and received death threats over the phone. One year later, SOCO and the World Wildlife Fund issued a joint statement with announcing the project in Virunga would be terminated and they would not pursue oil exploration on any other World Heritage site.

For his work in Virguna, in 2015 Katembo was promoted to director of Upemba National Park, located in southern DRC. Here he faces a familiar yet difficult set of challenges— without the protections that Virunga has under UNESCO. To protect his family, he lives apart from them, seeing them every six months, so dedicated is he tirelessly protecting this corner of the earth.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.