RUMANGABO, Democratic Republic of the Congo – When Jolie Kavugho Songya was nine years old, she wanted to grow up to be just like her father. She had never seen a gorilla, but she knew that it was his job to protect the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) population of rare apes from poachers and militias.
There was just one problem. No woman had ever joined the ranks of forest rangers who worked to preserve wildlife in Virunga, the oldest national park in Africa.
Songya was undeterred. “I was born into a ranger family,” she says. “My father taught me you have to go out and try for what you want.”
And so when the rangers decided to open their ranks to women, Songya, now 27, was part of their second wave of female recruits, joining the force in 2014. Today, she is one of 27 women who have passed the stringent selection process to become a full-time ranger in a force of more than 600.
Songya, who loved geography and environmental studies at school, is now an expert on the vast forest that has become her workplace, and where, AK-47 in hand, she protects tourists as they move through the national park on their way to see the famed gorillas.
It’s dangerous work, as she knows only too well. Her father lived to see his daughter follow in his footsteps, but he was killed on duty earlier this year, when a sudden storm blew up on Lake Edward, where he was patrolling. His boat capsized and he drowned.
But the risk is one that Songya is prepared to take. “It’s risky, but you just have to accept it: Commit or get out,” she says.
Protecting Gorillas From Conflict
There are just 880 mountain gorillas left in the world, and the staff at Virunga estimate that around a quarter of them live in the National Park, which covers 3,000 square miles (7,800 square km) along DRC’s eastern border with Uganda and Rwanda.
The park is extraordinarily beautiful, containing vast areas of dense forest, a web of lakes and rivers, snow-covered mountains and two active volcanoes. It is also at the epicenter of a bloody conflict that has torn eastern Congo apart for two decades, killing an estimated 5 million people and displacing over 2 million.
For years, the ongoing conflict made it almost impossible to protect the area’s wildlife. Mountain gorillas were driven to the edge of extinction – killed and trapped for bushmeat, or taken by poachers who sell gorilla artefacts and smuggle baby animals across borders to foreign buyers.
That’s why, in 2011, Virunga National Park’s managers began to recruit an expanded and highly professional force of forest rangers to drive off poachers and defend wildlife from a plethora of armed groups who use the park as a hiding place and as a source of food and income.
The mission of this elite force is both difficult and dangerous. It involves arduous patrols in dense jungle terrain and clashes with anti-government militias including the M23 and Mai Mai.
Innocent Mburanumwe has worked for the park for 20 years and is now head warden of the Southern Sector. In 2013, along with the park director, Belgian Emmanuel de Merode, Mburanumwe took the joint decision to admit women, overcoming his own prejudices to do so.
“At first I didn’t believe that women could do the job,” he says. “It’s physically very hard, but when the first women came in I was amazed at what they could do.”
The selection process is grueling, with no concessions made to the women who try for admission. But each year a few make it through to undertake six months’ intensive training at Ishango in the center of the park, learning to shoot, survive in the forest and provide first aid, and building up extreme fitness under the leadership of Belgian commandos and Congolese trainers.
Mburanumwe says it took a while for the existing rangers to accept the new recruits. “At first they were very negative about women joining. But then they saw that women could do the volcano ascents, they could go out on patrol just like a man; gradually they saw the women worked as well as the men.”
Today, the first cohort of women is progressing through the ranks.
Xaverine Mwamini Biriko was promoted to head up de Merode’s team of bodyguards in 2015. The park director had been seriously wounded
in an assassination attempt in 2014.
A Rare Opportunity for Women
Songya says there is equality among the ranks of the Virunga Rangers. “We get paid the same, we did the same training, and we do the same work.”
This can be a stark contrast to the outside world for the female rangers. Opportunities for women are severely restricted in North Kivu province, where education is limited or nonexistent, particularly for girls, and where half of adult women cannot read or write.
Songya was only able to get an education due to her father’s work as a ranger. Today, she is the only woman in her family to work outside the home: Her two older sisters stay at home caring for their young children.
The job of ranger is highly prestigious and sought after in North Kivu, one of the poorest provinces in DRC, which suffers high unemployment and offers few formal jobs.
“My brother tried to get into the rangers, but he wasn’t selected. He tried three times. My family said I was lucky but it was hard work too,” Songya says.
Songya has no intention of leaving the rangers any time soon. She is ambitious and proud of what she has achieved, both for the park and for her own independence.
“I think more girls will apply when they see what we have done.”