The Netflix Files: “Virunga” is planet of the (bipedal) apes

Ranger Station

One of Virunga National Park’s ranger lookout stations.

Virunga National Park is home to some of the world’s last mountain gorillas. Located in the far east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Virunga faces threats from poachers, armed rebel groups, refugees, and an unscrupulous British oil company, all of whom are competing for the park’s precious mineral resources. The documentary film Virunga (available on Netflix) follows the intrepid park rangers as they struggle to defend the park and its gorillas.

Virunga’s park rangers can only be described as militant conversationalists. They have to be in order to hold any power in a region infamous for its violent clashes between armed rebel groups from the Congo and neighboring Rwanda. The opening scene of the film finds a legion of rangers trekking through a field with AK-47s slung across their backs and rocket launchers swinging at their sides. Gunshots explode in the distance, and the rangers charge through the brush with guns at the ready, looking more like an advancing army than a group of friendly naturalists. The rangers find an improvised poachers’ camp and burn it.

Ndakasi the gorilla with caretaker Andre in Virunga National Park.

The film offers softer moments as well. The park is home to a gorilla orphanage that cares for babies whose parents have been killed by poachers. The baby gorillas are bright and adorable, and the movie is worth watching just for the many scenes of the little apes dangling from vines, picking their noses, and climbing on the caretaker’s backs. When the M23 rebel group advances toward the park, the gorillas cling to their human caretakersin fear as exploding shells rumble and machine guns fire, echoing across the hills.

Virunga National Park is more than twice the size of Rhode Island and contains a diverse landscape of wetlands, plains, rain forests, mountain cloud forests, and volcanoes. Poaching and human encroachment are perennial problems. Rangers begin to face a more severe threat when the Congolese government grants SOCO, a British oil company, exploration rights within Virunga. The film incorporates under-cover footage shot by park rangers and a French journalist as they seek to uncover the web of bribery and corruption stemming from SOCO’s actions in the region.

De Merode

Chief warden and Belgian prince Emmanuel de Mérode with a baby gorilla. In 2014 Mérode was ambushed near the park and shot several times.

In 2014, Virunga’s chief warden was shot several times after submitting a formal complaint against SOCO to the Congolese government. He survived, but death is never far from the minds of the rangers: more than 130 have been killed while defending the park and its wildlife.

“You need something to justify your existence on this Earth,” says one of the rangers toward the end of the film. “Gorillas justify why I am here. I would die for the gorillas.”

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