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High risk, low pay for DRC rangers entrusted to guard a gorilla sanctuary

  • Marie Jeanne Bora Ntianabo was drawn to the extraordinary commitment of park rangers while she was still a child.
  • Now 29, she loves her job as a ranger despite danger of being ambushed by poachers or armed groups operating in Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
  • The work doesn’t pay well, especially due to reduced numbers of tourists that the park depends on for revenue, but Ntianabo says she isn’t tempted by the profits others seek while harming the park’s ecosystems and wildlife.

At the age of 13, Marie Jeanne Bora Ntianabo already knew she wanted to be a park ranger. Today, she’s one of 250 rangers protecting Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to rare and threatened species like Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri), from poachers and gold prospectors.

Kahuzi-Biega was established in 1970 and covers an area of 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 square miles). It lies in the eastern DRC and has been on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger since 1997. The park is home to many threatened species, including lowland bongos (Tragelaphus eurycerus), owl-faced monkeys (Cercopithecus hamlyni), forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), and gorillas.

When she was still a girl, Ntianabo took part in awareness-raising programs organized by rangers in the field and was drawn to this work, which she thought was “extraordinary.” She set her sights on one day becoming one of them, a dream that came true after she graduated from university.

In 2013, Ntianabo passed a recruitment test and joined the Kahuzi-Biega National Park team, one of eight women among 111 recruits.

Low salaries for park rangers

The park’s rangers are tasked with the dangerous job of protecting and preserving wildlife from poachers, prospectors looking for gold and coltan within the park’s boundaries, and from armed groups fighting in the conflicts that have persisted across the eastern DRC and neighboring countries since the late 1990s. All of these groups have ready access to sophisticated weapons and do extensive damage to the park’s ecosystems.

Kahuzi-Biega’s rangers are often confronted with ambushes by poachers or militias.

Bora Ntianabo Marie Jeanne, 29 ans, eco garde au park Kahuzi Biega en compagnie de son collegue de travail/Photo de David Kalinga Safari
Marie Jeanne Bora Ntianabo, 29, a park ranger at Kahuzi-Biega, pictured with a colleague. Image by David Kalinga Safari.

Though the rangers’ work is difficult and dangerous, it’s poorly paid. They work for the equivalent of $50 a month, and sometimes go three or even six months without pay, when tourist numbers are low. And due to COVID-19, tourism to the park has suffered significantly. Ntianabo’s monthly paycheck isn’t enough to her cover her needs. Her parents are in poor health and rely on her for support. She also pays school fees for four of her brothers.

High risks for low pay leaves the park rangers facing difficult choices, including the temptation to poach the wildlife they are trusted with protecting. According to Ntianabo, a baby gorilla can sell for at least $23,000 within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of the park.

A family of Grauer’s or eastern lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2016. Image by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.

“That sum of money does not tempt me. I cannot be associated with those who have always destroyed our forests to sell animals that I am here to protect,” she says.

Her commitment has earned the respect of her peers, who refer to her affectionately as “Bora,” meaning “beautiful,” and she is frequently named as a team leader.

“Bora never gives up and continues giving her all as long as it takes to reach her goal. We could see how courageous she was even in the first days of park ranger training,” says Hubert Mulongoy Dumarché, a longtime colleague. “When she worked hard on an exercise, though it may have been difficult, she ultimately succeeded, while other girls and boys had a harder time doing so.”

Ntianabo helps raise awareness among neighboring populations about protecting the park and its species. Her outreach also extends to fighting against deforestation and poaching. She advocates for good and better resource management in the park and dedicates herself to helping it run properly.

With her gun over her shoulder, uniform straightened, kepi donned, and boots laced up, she is ready to face any situation that may arise threatening to destroy the environment she has sworn to protect at all costs.

“I will do my best so that, eventually, in the future, I will be able to run one of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation sites,” she confidently says.

Banner image of Kahuzi-Biega National Park rangers standing in formation in the park in October 2016, by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s French team and first published here on our French site on Aug. 25, 2021.

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