"February was a busy month," says the park ranger I am chatting with. "We had a lot of visitors."
"What does 'a lot' mean"?" I ask, doubtfully.
"Maybe two per week," he replies, affably, then adds, "March has been slow..."
I am at the information center at the entrance to Kahuzi-Biega National Park in South Kivu province. The months since my last break feel like years, and I have asked for a weekend of leisure with a friend at a neighboring base. Happily, my request was granted, and now I find myself "stranded" at the gate of the only Congolese nature preserve I have yet to encounter, waiting for another vehicle to come meet me.
I have been suffering from serious nature deprivation in the overpopulated, degraded areas stretching along the western shore of Lake Kivu, where my program activities are based. I could not be more thrilled to be stranded here, and it seems the tourist-starved park guide appreciates the sudden and unexpected attention as I pummel him with questions.
According to the ranger, this park covers about 2, 316 square miles, an area two thirds the size of Yellowstone, or about the same size as Delaware. The visitor center is reminiscent of an American park service structure, a solid, spacious stone building with large panels depicting tropical vistas and wildlife.
But the comparison to American protected areas is of limited value. Whereas Yellowstone has 4000 employees (including those operating the concessions that run many of the park's amenities), Kahuzi Biega has a mere 200.
And working here is far from glamorous; in the years following the Rwandan genocide, Interahamwe militias, fearing vengeance from their now Tutsi-dominated, post-war state, fled into eastern Congo. Many of them penetrated this forest, seeking its cover and relative abundance of resources, and, later, staying partly for the mineral wealth that they began to exploit. During the post-genocide period, half of the park staff was murdered, and probably an even larger portion of the wildlife. The ranger leads me to the back of the visitor center to a display of piles of giant bones, a sampling of the elephants and gorillas that have been poached in recent years, silent victims of modern-day African war.
Still, there is some hope for this place. Its 200 employees may not elevate Kahuzi Biega to Yellowstone standards, but they're still a solid group. The ranger I am speaking with seems very keen, educated, devoted. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this park receives outside funding, which allows its staff to at least afford some protection for the resources here. While the elephant population has been all but decimated, some of the gorillas, for which this area is so famous, survive. You can even go see them, for a cool 400$ per visitor. The mountains for which the park is named are off limits to tourists for the moment, for security reasons, but they loom high over largely intact equatorial forest. Wilderness still has a stronghold here, and perhaps with enough outside pressure for protection and peace, it will rebound.