DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — A Belgian royal who, as director of a vast national park in eastern Congo has defended endangered mountain gorillas and other animals from poachers and the forests from illegal logging, was shot and seriously wounded as he drove through the park, officials said Wednesday.
A park spokeswoman said Emmanuel de Merode, who is the chief warden of Virunga National Park, appeared to have been targeted but wouldn't say by whom. The list of potential suspects includes members of outlawed armed groups that roam the park, Africa's oldest.
De Merode was in serious but stable condition in a hospital in the city of Goma after being attacked by three gunmen while driving alone through the park Tuesday, said park spokeswoman Joanna Natasegara. He was about about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Goma.
Virunga covers 7,800 square kilometers (3,000 square miles), including the snowcapped Rwenzori mountains that soar more than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) high, seven volcanoes, a lake and plains filled with wildlife. Virunga National Park is home to about a quarter of the world's estimated 800 remaining mountain gorillas, and they are under threat. The park boasts more than 200 species of mammals including the giraffe-like okapi found only in Congo.
It is the only place on Earth where one can see all three African great apes, among its 22 primates.
But it occupies one of the most unstable corners of the Earth; nearly every rebellion in eastern Congo in the last 30 years has started in Virunga. And its abundant natural resources make it an attractive target.
De Merode and other park officials have fought to protect the park from exploitation, including poachers and armed militias that illegally log its trees to sell charcoal, a lucrative business. The Congolese government has also authorized oil exploration in the park, a move conservation organizations have fought.
It is a dangerous business, but one that de Merode has not shied from. He typically sleeps in a tent like the other rangers and is a pilot who flies to the scenes of illegal fishing and logging.
In an interview with The Associated Press in 2012, de Merode noted that the important work of protecting the park's great landscapes and animals often came with huge costs for the park rangers.
More than 140 rangers have been killed on the job in the past 10 years, Natasegara said in a phone interview.
A post on the park's website recounted the pursuit last year of militants who cut down trees to make charcoal and noted how dangerous that work is.
But "we will not stop facing down those who seek to destroy Virunga until our last drop of blood is spilled," it said. It was signed only by the "Virunga Team."
De Merode's injuries were initially very critical but he was conscious and responding well to treatment, Natasegara said, adding: "This morning he's much more stable. He's out of the woods."
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said in a statement that two surgeons from the U.N.'s peacekeeping force for Congo took part in an operation on de Merode. He said de Merode was in stable condition.
The U.N. cultural agency and Global Witness, an environmental and corruption watchdog, called for a thorough investigation.
Among other threats to Virunga and its wildlife: illegal fishing in the reserve's lake, stealing of baby gorillas for selling or killing of adults for their claws and a budding oil industry.
French oil company Total has pledged not to exploit the part of its concession that falls inside the park, but another company, London-based SOCO, has said it will. That prompted the British Foreign Office and the World Wildlife Fund to urge SOCO not to explore within the park.
In a statement, SOCO condemned the attack on de Merode.
Belgian legislator Francois-Xavier De Donnea told the VTM network on Wednesday that de Merode was fearless in protecting the park.
"He knew he was running a risk. I often told him so," he said. "He goes against the interests of major financial groups."
Associated Press writers Gregory Katz in London, Greg Keller in Paris, Michelle Faul in Lagos, Nigeria, Raf Casert in Brussels and Jerome Delay in Carnot, Central African Republic, contributed to this report.