Your Little Zoo Makes a Big Difference for Wildlife and Rangers in the Congo

Heather Vrzal
Senior Zookeeper

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
- Margaret Mead

"You must be the change you want to see in the world."
- Mahatma Gandhi

Our Zoo has been involved in what we feel is one of the most innovative conservation efforts to-date, that has direct and immediate impact in the field. Through an organization called WildlifeDirect, we are helping to support an elite group of 49 Rangers who patrol the habitat of the last remaining Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These rangers are the Advance Force. The Advance Force was created mid-2006 after a rigorous 6-month selection and training program involving over 500 Rangers. The Advance Force was created as an emergency unit that could be deployed throughout Virunga, assisting in the protection of Mountain Gorillas, carrying out anti-charcoal-burning patrols, providing essential backup and advising, supporting and teaching when other rangers are overwhelmed with the challenges.

In addition to the Mountain Gorillas, the Advance Force has an overwhelming positive impact on many species in the park including the last remaining hippos in Lake Edward after last year's massacre by the Mai Mai rebels. (Over the last decade, this group of hippos has declined from 22,000 to 315 animals). While patrolling the park, the Rangers discover and disarm traps laid by poachers for elephants, antelope and other species as well. Currently, fighting in the gorilla sector is critically endangering the Rangers, their work and the last remaining Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park.

Through WildlifeDirect, our Zoo was able to:

  • Provide salaries for Rangers who had not been paid in almost 10 years, yet continued to perform their incredibly dangerous job
  • Purchase Ranger uniforms and boots
  • Improve the water sanitation system at Bukima patrol post in the gorilla sector, which houses 17 guards and uses a 20-year-old well in which the water is filthy
  • Provide tents and rations for patrols
  • Restock the mostly empty pharmacy at the park headquarters which serves the gorilla sector, the Rangers and their families

The funds for these improvements were raised by Zoo staff through a live and silent auction held for volunteers, colleagues and staff which raised over $14,000. 100% of our donation went directly to the field. WildlifeDirect takes no administration fee for the funds that are sent. The financial support goes to where it is intended in its entirety. WildlifeDirect is a program of the Africa Conservation Fund, a US- and UK-registered charitable organization founded and chaired by African conservationist Dr. Richard Leakey, who is credited with putting an end to the elephant slaughter in Kenya in the 1980s. WildlifeDirect was established to provide support to conservationists who are carrying-out critical work to protect wildlife and habitats under difficult, isolated and often dangerous conditions (over 150 Rangers have died in the line of duty in the last 10 years), via the use of the internet and blogs directly from these isolated areas. This means, not only do you know exactly where your donation goes, you may blog with the people who benefit from it. As a Zookeeper, I have never been involved in a conservation effort like this.  I feel that we aren't just throwing money at a problem; we are supporting the people that are solving the problem, on their own terms and in their own way within their culture.

Take a moment to visit wildlifedirect.org and see if one of their programs is of interest to you. Thank you for the opportunity to bring this information forward.

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