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 her 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.Virunga Mountain ranges are shared by DR. Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
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.
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.
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.
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.” The job of ranger is highly prestigious and sought after in North Kivu, one of the mineral rich provinces in DRC, which is also home to a wide variety of mountain Gorillas. “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,” she added.