American actor Leonardo DiCaprio has joined a campaign to support Africa’s oldest nature reserve after it came under a deadly attack last month.
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a popular tourist attraction and is known for its endangered mountain gorilla population.
In April, 12 rangers at the park were killed in an ambush by a suspected Rwandan rebel group.
DiCaprio has now contributed to a new fund which aims to support the park.
Earth Alliance, a group co-founded by the actor, has donated part of the initial $2m (£1.65m) funding, although it is not clear exactly how much.
“I had the great honour of meeting and supporting Virunga’s courageous team in their fight against illegal oil drilling in 2013,” DiCaprio said in a statement to BBC News.
The actor was an executive producer on the documentary Virunga, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2014.
“Virunga urgently needs funds to protect the endangered mountain gorilla population, to provide support to the rangers and the families of rangers who have fallen in the line of duty, and to help deliver essential disease prevention efforts,” he said.
“It’s critical that we rally together during this time of incredible crisis.”
The park, a Unesco World Heritage site, is one of the most biologically diverse in the world, and his home to several hundred species of birds, reptiles and mammals.
On Monday, the park launched the Virunga Fund, made up of donations from groups including Earth Alliance, which was co-founded by DiCaprio, Emerson Collective and Global Wildlife Conservation. The European Commission have also contributed.
Virunga Park said it was facing a “series of unprecedented threats”. In addition to the recent attack on rangers, the coronavirus outbreak has forced it to close to tourists, resulting in a significant loss of revenue.
Scientists have also said Covid-19 poses an “existential threat” to the gorillas themselves.
The World Wide Fund For Nature has warned that mountain gorillas are at risk of catching coronavirus because they share 98% of their DNA with humans.
A month after Virunga stopped all tourism activities, 12 park rangers, a driver and four members of the local community were killed in a violent attack by around 60 militiamen.
The group ambushed a convoy of civilians that was being protected by the rangers. A statement from the park at the time described it as an attack on the local civilian population, adding that the rangers were not the target.
Kidnappers have previously been known to target tourists in the park. In 2018 attackers killed park ranger Rachel Masika Baraka during the brief kidnapping of two British tourists and their driver.
National Virunga Park director Emmanuel De Merode said he had “never been more worried” about the future of the park in light of the outbreaks of Ebola and Covid-19.
“Virunga’s rangers are racing against the clock to protect both the local communities that surround the park and the endangered mountain gorilla population from these twin threats,” he said.
The park said money raised would provide urgent support for staff on the ground to deliver critical disease prevention efforts, law enforcement, and protect endangered species.
DiCaprio has become well known for his activism in recent years, particularly on environmental issues.
In 2016 he appeared in Before The Flood, a documentary that saw him meet scientists and world leaders to discuss the dangers of climate change.
Last month he helped launch America’s Food Fund, a fundraising initiative that aims to ensure all US citizens have access to a reliable supply of food. It has raised $26m (£21.4m) so far.
The 45-year-old became one of the world’s best-known actors in the late 1990s after appearing in Titanic and Romeo + Juliet.
He has since starred in The Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. He won the Oscar for best actor in 2016 for The Revenant.