Virunga National Park director aiming to raise $1m at Virgin Money London Marathon
One of the world’s most famous conservationists Emmanuel de Merode has revealed he is aiming to raise $1 million by running the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon.
De Merode is the Chief Warden and Director of Virunga National Park in Congo and hopes the money he raises will help safeguard the future of the park which is home to the world’s last mountain gorillas.
Virunga National Park shot to prominence in 2014 when the Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga was released. The film highlighted De Merode and his team’s defence of the Park from threats such as violence, poaching and oil extraction.
Just days before the film’s release, De Merode was lucky to escape with his life after being shot multiple times during a roadside assassination attempt.
Just three years later, he is gearing up for his first Virgin Money London Marathon.
We spoke to De Merode about Virunga National Park, the film, his recovery from the assassination attempt, and running.
Tell us why you have decided to run the Virgin Money London Marathon this year?
I am running to raise money for Virunga National Park in order to start an endowment fund for the families of park rangers that have died in service to the park. The job of Virunga ranger is one of the most dangerous in conservation and more than 150 rangers have been killed whilst protecting the park.
Would you consider yourself a runner? Have you done any marathons before?
No, definitely not, I would describe myself as quite the opposite! I’ve never taken part in any marathons or longer races, so I’m certainly throwing myself in at the deep end.
How has the training been going? It must be difficult to prepare yourself for London conditions in the Congo?
Fitting the training around my work is probably the biggest challenge - I have an extremely full schedule, frequently travelling around the park or abroad for meetings, so a lot of my training has been done on the move - in Geneva, London, Belgium, but mostly Congo. There are some logistical challenges of training when in Congo - with no street lights I have to run in the evenings with a head torch and the terrain is also very different to London, with no paved roads. That said, I do hope that training at the high altitude in Virunga will help improve my general fitness.
You are running for the Virunga Foundation, for those not familiar with the foundation, tell us why it’s so important to you and why people should get behind the fundraising campaign?
I have been working for Virunga National Park for almost ten years. It is a truly spectacular place, with incredible biodiversity – home to over 1000 mammal and bird species, including elephants, lions, hippos, and critically endangered mountain gorillas. There are only an estimated 1000 mountain gorillas left on earth, a quarter of which live in Virunga. Virunga is also based in North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest places in the world. The natural wealth of Virunga has fuelled armed conflict and poaching in the region, which at one point threatened to almost destroy the park. The funds I am aiming to raise through the marathon will help us to build an endowment fund for the families of Virunga rangers. This means that the money raised for the marathon will go on to generate more money, year in, year out. So for years to come, we can ensure that the families of park rangers are supported. It’s the least we can do for those who have sacrificed so much for the rest of us.
Yourself and Virunga National Park shot to prominence with the film Virunga in 2014. How much has the filmed helped raise the profile of your cause and the park?
The film has contributed enormously to raising the profile of Virunga, and we now have a large network of global supporters, who I really hope will help us to meet our ambitious fundraising target. This is a huge opportunity for any supporters of the park to make a real difference - not only will their donation be matched, but it will be an investment in the future of Virunga for years to come.
How has life changed for you personally and, more generally, how has life on the park and the dangers it faces changed (if at all) since the film’s release?
Personally, my life has been largely unchanged. For the park, however, the situation is steadily improving - animal populations are recovering after years of conflict. Virunga is now open to tourists, and the park is working on projects to help develop new opportunities to local people. At the end of 2015 we launched a new hydro-electric project, supported by the Howard G Buffett Foundation and the European Union, which is bringing electricity to villages around the park for the first time ever.
You were seriously wounded following a gun attack just as the film was released, how have you recovered from those wounds and do they affect you at all when you are running?
I was hit by two bullets, one of which punctured my lung, the other my liver. I didn’t know whether I would live, and if I did, whether I would walk ever again, never mind run. I was extremely lucky to have survived and to get back to work within just a few weeks. At this point in my training, it’s a relief that I’ve not found that the injuries I sustained have impacted my ability to run. I very much hope that I can continue training without causing myself any more injuries as well!
In the film, you get a real sense of how close-knit the park’s team is, have they been supporting you in your training?
Definitely. The rangers are the driving force for everything I do, they do amazing work protecting Virunga and working with them is hugely inspirational. My colleagues (rangers and Foundation staff) have been hugely supportive as well, checking in to make sure that I am training consistently, eating right, and looking after myself.
You have ambitious plans to raise $1 million from the Virgin Money London Marathon, what would it mean to yourself and the park were that to be achieved?
Raising $1 million will be a huge milestone for Virunga, it will help us to start an endowment fund for the widows of park rangers who have lost their lives in service to the park. The Virunga Foundation is committed to building peace and prosperity in Eastern Congo and the Park is the biggest employer in the region. There are on average six dependents for every member of staff, including rangers. Therefore, we need to ensure that if the worst were to happen, that there are funds available so families can continue to support themselves - sending their children to school, paying bills, all of that is so important. By starting an endowment fund, it means that every dollar people give is invested for the future. And with Gift Aid for UK taxpayers and matching funds, there’s never been a more impactful way for people to support Virunga National Park.
You have studied, lived and spent time in England, have you ever been to watch the Virgin Money London Marathon?
I’ve never been to the Virgin Money London Marathon in person, but obviously it’s an iconic race and a fantastic event raising money and interest in so many amazing personal stories and worthwhile causes.
What are you most looking forward to when running the Virgin Money London Marathon?
I think probably crossing the finish line! When I first agreed to run, I don't think I quite grasped the immensity of the task I had undertaken and the amount of preparation it takes to take part in a marathon. At this point I’m still not sure if I will be able to make it to the end, but I am determined to try and get there. The thought of the funds we could raise for the rangers has driven me through the 5am runs and the sheer amount of time it takes to get prepared for this marathon.
The theme of the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon is #ReasonToRun, what is your reason to run?
My reason to run is to raise $1 million to help guarantee a future for the brave men and women who protect Virunga, Africa’s oldest National Park.