VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Democratic Republic of Congo—
Molten lava spewed forth in the more than mile-wide crater, glowing neon-red fissures breaking up the dark pit with their shifting jagged outlines. The strong, red glow of light washed over me even from the rim of the crater, roughly 1500 feet above. I was peering into Nyiragongo Volcano in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), home of the world’s largest lava lake.
Memories of scrambling up loose rock while enveloped in clammy fog faded away as I watched the lava lake brew. Our group of 16 hikers fell silent in the presence of something so beautiful and so deadly.
Nyiragongo’s unusually fluid lava reaches up to 60 miles per hour racing downhill and its two most recent eruptions killed more than 220 people, even with evacuation of several hundred thousand residents to neighboring Rwanda. But this dangerous force of nature could also help save the country.
In conflict-torn DRC, a force for peace and prosperity has emerged: Virunga National Park, in which the volcano is located. Virunga is Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and home to about half of the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas. The Virunga Alliance, an intersection of civil society, private sector, and state institutions, claims that tourism generated by the park can stabilize the country through income generation and sustainable development.
However, soon after National Geographic declared Virunga one of the world’s top destinations in 2012, M23 rebel forces overtook the volcano, forcing the park to close to tourists. M23, mostly comprised of former rebels who assimilated into the government army after a 2009 peace deal, mutinied from the army in 2012, citing the government’s failure to fulfill terms of the peace deal and poor conditions in the army. The conflict is partially fueled by animosity between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups, as well as the quest for Eastern Congo’s resources, including gold, tin, and minerals used in laptops and mobile phones.
Hikers climb up through the fog to the top of Nyiragongo Volcano. Photo: Jen Zhu
Nyiragongo Volcano reopened for tourism this past October, nearly a year after the rebel group officially ceased hostilities. Living nearby in Uganda, I saw acquaintance after acquaintance travel to the park, and the allure of witnessing the lava lake began to overrule my security concerns. But right before friends and I paid for our DRC visas and park registration fees online, several news reports came out that made us reconsider. Three people working for the United Nations had been kidnapped in Eastern Congo. Armed men, possibly rebels, were crossing into DRC from Rwanda and Uganda, changing from their paramilitary uniforms into civilian clothing before disappearing into the forest.
We wavered on the trip. “I’ll call the park to ask,” our travel companion said. “As long as people on the DRC side don’t think it’s completely reckless and insane!”
The following morning, he reported back. “The park is still safe and the border will be open. This stuff happens all the time and they’re not freaked out.” He said the park official he spoke with laughed at his concerns.
Clashes between rebels and the government have left the park staff caught in the middle, negotiating between various parties in hopes of sparing sections of the park from destruction. They worked to clear rebels from Nyiragongo Volcano while also contending with tens of thousands of displaced people who camped at its base in 2012 and 2013, trying to avoid the worst of the violence in the country.
The dangers faced by these park rangers are hardly typical occupational hazards. In Virunga, park ranger responsibilities such as protecting endangered species require policing armed poachers and paramilitary groups. More than 130 rangers have died defending the park in the past 20 years. The perils of the job are so severe that a Fallen Rangers Fund was created to provide a financial safety net for widows and children of the slain.