For women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, being a ranger at the world’s deadliest park is a huge honor. It is there, Virunga National Park, that photographer Monique Jaques traveled to photograph these women in action.
Virunga National Park is three thousand square miles and boasts one of the most diverse collections of ecosystems on the planet. It is home to over a quarter of the world’s mountain gorilla population, a population the rangers of the park are dedicated to protecting. They believe the land is the gorilla’s rightful land, so they are willing to face the armed poachers, antigovernment rebels, coal smugglers, and native tribes that threaten them and the gorillas every day. Since 1996, over 150 rangers have been killed in the line of work. The training for the job is rigorous, and it wasn’t until 2014 that any women made it through. The women who are now part of the program are ambassadors for women in all of the DRC.
The dynamics of the park were fascinating. Here were these rangers who were fighting rebel groups and poachers and coal thieves just to keep this habitat for gorillas and other animals.
Monique got the go ahead for this project with a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation, a group who funds reporting trips to underreported areas of Africa. Monique focuses her work on women and the strength of women, so she was really thrilled to be showing the dedication of these women who overcome so much to obtain one of the most prestigious jobs in Eastern Congo.
For me they were emblematic of so much of Congo; they overcame the odds—civil war, lack of education and family structure, no real female role models—and became rangers in the most beautiful place in the world.
Monique admits that working in Congo is never easy. The challenges are just different from those of a more standard shoot. “You’re never sure if the electricity will work,” she says, and there’s often a lot of physical labor required with any given trip. To get the volcano for this shoot, Monique and her team had an 8-hour climb. And of course, it’s not just about enduring the elements; it’s about enduring the elements while being ready with the camera.
Because the shoot was taking place in an active conflict zone, there was also quite a bit of planning that went into moving around day to day as well. Figuring out the logistics was a task, given that some parts were off limits because of rebel groups. Monique says that every day they had new security meetings to assess the situation and figure out how to progress. The risks involved with the shoot just added to Monique’s appreciation of the women who risked it all to serve without fear.
Monique’s photos were published along with a story on the female rangers in National Geographic, as well as several other magazines internationally.
To view more of Monique’s work, visit moniquejaques.com.