The son of Protestant farmers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rodrigue Katembo dreamed of one day becoming a pastor. But at 14, he was forced into an armed group. Now 41, he is one of his country’s fiercest defenders of wildlife. Katembo has faced illegal charcoal harvesters, armed poachers and multiple militias as a warden within the 3,000 square miles of Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
One of his most daunting challenges began in 2010 when British oil company SOCO International was granted an oil exploration permit by the Congolese government in part of the protected area. SOCO’s operations threatened the livelihoods of locals and the survival of one of the last populations of critically endangered mountain gorillas, who live in the southern region of the park — estimated at about 480 of the world’s remaining 800.