This is the story behind Orlando von Einsiedel's groundbreaking new documentary, Virunga, which debuts on Netflix today.
We all meet heroes in our lives. Sometimes we just don't recognize them at the time. Today Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste is sitting in a Cairo prison cell, convicted by an Egyptian court, incomprehensibly, as a terrorist sympathizer for interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Emmanuel De Merode, Chief Warden of Virunga National Park, survived an assassination attempt in April in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He managed to survive four bullets in the stomach the day before the world premier at the Tribeca Film Festival of the documentary Virunga that will be released directly on Netflix on November 7. In this extraordinary film De Merode stands up to corrupt government and corporate interests as well as the armed rebels whose activities are threatening the survival of the park and its denizens, the world's largest remaining group of mountain gorillas. All of these groups wanted De Merode dead.
What could I possibly have in common with these two men? We all worked together on a children's book, of all things, in the wake of the horrific Gorilla Massacre in June of 2007. But independently Peter and Emmanuel have gone on to become unlikely international heroes for other exploits. Peter has been a journalist and war correspondent for the BBC and then Al Jazeera covering some of the world's deadliest conflicts. Emmanuel has been responsible for protecting Virunga's mountain gorillas and is the highest ranking custodian of this world heritage site.
In 2007, the world's remaining population of mountain gorillas numbered 720 in total. At that time famed anthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey, also Emmanuel's father-in-law, was not sanguine about the prospects for survival of the mountain gorilla species. He thought that they might only have five years before their numbers were to small to sustain the genetic diversity necessary for proper propagation of the species.
I was inspired to write this entry as I recently came across one of my photos of the two of them standing together in Virunga National Park about to set off on a trek to find the mountain gorillas. At the time I certainly had no idea what was in store for either of them. Fate has led them down very separate paths, both thrust onto the world stage.