Virunga Highlights Plights of Mountain Gorillas & Humans

I’ve been waiting with  anticipation ever since it was announced a few months ago that Netflix had acquired Virunga, a documentary about Africa’s first national park. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Virunga is one of the last remaining homes of the world’s mountain gorillas, but it’s been threatened by war and oil exploration. It’s just across the border from Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, where Ujuzi often leads gorilla tracking excursions.

I got a chance to watch Virunga last night and highly recommend it. It offers incredible insight into the intelligence and emotional lives of the gorillas, and the commitment of park rangers, scientists and local residents who work to protect their habitat.

Some of the film’s most touching moments take place in the park’s mountain gorilla orphanage. Poachers killed these mountain gorillas’ parents – not for meat, but in hopes that they could sell the babies on the black market. On at least one occasion, poachers massacred almost an entire gorilla clan as part of an effort to drive the gorillas to extinction. Their thinking is that if there are no more mountain gorillas, the park will open up for mining and other ventures.

The orphanage offers safety to four young mountain gorillas, as well as an opportunity for them to grow up healthy and strong. You can see the great amount of love among the gorillas and their human handlers. But the handlers are aware of a bitter paradox. The baby gorillas needed human helpers in order to survive, but now they have learned not to see humans as a threat. What does this mean for their possible re-release into the wild?

It was also heartbreaking to witness the funeral of one of the park’s rangers, and to hear rangers talk pragmatically about the possibility of death. Rangers are often injured or killed in conflicts with poachers or with armed groups that want to claim park land. But many of those in the film echoed the assessment of Andre Bauma, who heads the gorilla orphanage: “You must justify why you are on this earth – gorillas justify why I am here, they are my life. So if it is about dying, I will die for the gorillas.”

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