Eco-crisis: Deadly assaults on park guards growing

Defending nature can be dangerous work.  Just ask the park guards at Virunga National Park in the Democratic of Republic of Congo.

  Peril abounds for gorillas (photo by John Fa)

Peril abounds for gorillas (photo by John Fa)

In the last decade more than 140 guards have been killed at Virunga in an effort to hold at bay poachers and armed militant groups.  The park is a World Heritage site, famous as home to a quarter of the world's critically endangered mountain gorillas, and an abundance of other African wildlife.

The latest victim of violence is the Chief Warden of Virunga, Emmanuel de Merode, who is also a member of the Belgian royal family.  Merode was shot and gravely wounded on Tuesday by three gunmen in the park. 

For years, Merode had led efforts to defend the park and its wildlife from a growing tide of lawlessness in the region. 

Park guards in many parts of the world have died while attempting to defend their reserves from illegal poachers, gold miners, loggers, and drug traffickers. 

The assault on a royal is underscoring what for many is seen as a growing crisis: A rising tide of violence and criminality among poachers and encroachers, which often operate in organized gangs.

Guards also struggle to hold at bay growing numbers of impoverished people living near parks--people who see the wildlife, timber, and other resources in parks as a potential source of food or income. 

Just as those who fight bravely in wars are often hailed as heroes, we should also recognize the gallantry of those who are fighting--and even dying--to protect Earth's most vital places.