Belgian head of Congo’s Virunga park shot

FILE- In this file photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 11,  2012, Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga National Park director and chief warden, poses at the park headquarters in Rumangabo, some 40 miles north of Goma, eastern Congo. Park officials say de Merode has been shot and seriously wounded by three gunmen who ambushed him on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. (AP File Photo/Jerome Delay)
FILE- In this file photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2012, Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga National Park director and chief warden, poses at the park headquarters in Rumangabo, some 40 miles north of Goma, eastern Congo. Park officials say de Merode has been shot and seriously wounded by three gunmen who ambushed him on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. (AP File Photo/Jerome Delay)

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The Belgian director of Africa’s oldest national park, a reserve in conflict-ridden eastern Congo, has been shot and seriously wounded but his condition is improving, park officials said.

Three gunmen ambushed Emmanuel de Merode, chief warden of Virunga National Park, on Tuesday, according spokeswoman Joanna Natasegara. A statement on the park’s website said he was traveling between Goma, a main city in the east near Rwanda’s border, and Rumangabo at the time.

Natasegara said Wednesday that his injuries were initially very critical but that he is already getting better.

“This morning he’s much more stable. He’s out of the woods,” she said, adding that he is conscious.

Natasegara would not say where in the body he was shot. She said the motives of the gunmen are unclear.

Virunga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to endangered mountain gorillas but also a hotbed of activity by illegal armed groups, including poachers. Virtually every rebellion in eastern Congo in the past 30 years has started there.

The park faces myriad threats: illegal logging by militias that make millions off charcoal; illegal fishing in the reserve’s lake; stealing of baby gorillas for selling or killing of adults for their claws; and a budding oil industry.

“Emmanuel is a dedicated conservationist putting his life on the line every day to protect Virunga National Park, its rangers, its endangered species and the people that depend on the park for their livelihoods,” Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of conservation at WWF International, said in a statement on the group’s website.

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