MUTWANGA — At the foot of mount Rwenzori, locals erupt in joy when they see their homes lit with electric light bulbs for the first time in their lives. Meanwhile, at the nearby Pic Hotel in Mutwanga, a small village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), tourists are finally returning.

Over the past few years, the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation has helped limit poaching and agricultural exploitation of the DRC's Virunga National Park.

"This area belongs only to the park, the people have no right to live or cultivate there," says François Mutamba, the local area manager. "To stop inhabitants from continuing to destroy it, we've given them an ultimatum to leave the area at the end of their last harvest."

Despite the reserve's protected status, thousands of families have grown crops like beans, corn, rice, manioc, and bananas inside the area. Added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979, Virunga National Park in the Congolese province of North Kivu is about to lose its special status due to the extinction of its flagship species including gorillas, hippopotamuses and rare plants.

Poachers and farmers aren't the only ones who are destroying the wildlife reserve.

To save the park, its Belgian director, Emmanuel de Mérode, helped implement development projects aimed at the population living around it.

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Silverback gorilla in Virunga National Park — Photo: Innocent Mburanumwe

"To this end, we've built infrastructure like the Mutwanga and Matebe hydroelectric dams and opened 12 schools in the Rutshuru and Lubero territories," Mérode said last year.

The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation built the Mutwanga power plant in North Kivu. The Matebe plant, which received help funding from the Howard G. Buffett foundation, supplies a vast part of the nearby city of Goma.

Mérode said that 70 kilometers of roadways had been built to make the Watalinga area more accessible and to boost tourism in the reserve.

Two years ago, a soap factory was set up in Mutwanga, a small village near Beni, to help fight unemployment in the region. In addition to that factory, several workshops to manufacture metal doors opened.

Etienne Mbatanguli, a local, says business has been good since he launched his own workshop, which gets its electricity from the Mutwanga hydroelectric power plant. "I feel liberated now because the cost of energy has gone down significantly," he says. "Only one-fourth of my monthly expenses go into electricity now — a lot less than when I had to use gasoline for fuel."

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Mount Mikeno in Virunga National Park — Photo: Cai Tjeenk Willink

Poachers and farmers aren't the only ones who are destroying the wildlife reserve. There are also rebel groups attacking it. A campaign launched to recruit guards for the park has attracted young locals, who are now calling on their unemployed friends to "join this profession instead of letting themselves be enrolled by armed groups."

"We're hunting [the armed groups] from all quarters and they're currently suffering a rout," says Lieutenant Mak Azukayi, DRC's armed forces spokesman in Beni.

Reverend Gilbert Kambale, who helps coordinate civil societies in Beni, says that the local population no longer exploits Virunga National Park thanks to local projects. "I appreciate these sort of inclusive projects, which have the advantage of bringing everybody together to protect the park. Because all inhabitants can reap the fruits from these works in their everyday lives."

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