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Leonardo DiCaprio has been an avid environmentalist for over 15 years, and started his own foundation in 1998 to preserve endangered species and their habitats, among other goals. This year, the prolific actor accepted a role as executive producer of Virunga, a documentary he describes as “a true David and Goliath story” that argues for the protection of mountain gorillas and Africa’s oldest national park, as well as peers into as the harsh realities of life in the Congo.
Although shooting took place in 2011 and 2012 before DiCaprio signed on to produce, the actor felt a strong tie to the film’s message immediately after watching it. “I was incredibly moved by the documentary,” he told reporters during a conference call on Monday. “When the head of Netflix brought this to me, I was really shell-shocked at the tension. … It’s got the kind of tension and drama that is indicative of what’s going on in the world right now. These guys were there in actual time, seeing the conflict between the government and the rebels, and we see these heroes standing at the feet of, essentially, their own mortality, protecting these wild creatures.”
Poaching has been one of the biggest threats to the endangered mountain gorilla population, which has dwindled to less than 1,000 individuals in the wild. Today, however, environmental destruction from corporate interests — particularly those in the oil industry like British company SOCO International — have been the main cause of concern for Virunga park director Emmanuel de Merode and his park rangers. Amid the remnants of a civil war between the Democratic Republic of Congo government and militant rebels M23, SOCO was given the right to explore the Lake Edwards region of the park for underground oil.
“It’s almost unimaginable that a UNESCO heritage site is at risk of being exploited for the oil industry,” DiCaprio said. “We have systematically deforested our land; there’s a new report that we’ve lost half of the world’s biodiversity since the 1970s; we’re in the midst of climate change, and to systematically allow oil interests to go into these incredibly pristine environments that not only sequester carbon for climate change, but are home to the last bit of biodiversity that we have left is just an atrocity to nature, an atrocity to future generations.”
When asked about his role as executive producer and his hopes for the film, DiCaprio told The Hollywood Reporter, “I’ve been working alongside Netflix to partner myself as a producer to bring more attention to some incredibly vital and important stories concerning our environment, and Virunga is one of these incredible stories. … For me, it is something that is going to launch a whole network of stories around the world that need to be told.”
DiCaprio also wants to honor the courage of over a hundred rangers who have given their lives in defense of the Virunga fauna since the mid-1990s. One of the most powerful scenes, in his opinion, depicts the caregiver of a group of orphaned gorillas taking up arms when militant rebels approached his conservation complex. “The real heroes in these stories are the local communities,” he says. “Virunga, to me, is one of the best examples of environmental heroism where you have grassroots people on the ground risking their lives for these last remaining places that are so vital and important on so many different levels around the world. … These people are risking their lives every day to not only protect this environment, but to bring the message worldwide.”
Virunga director Orlando von Einsiedel is very appreciative of the heightened awareness that DiCaprio has brought for the cause, and they seem to have had some success; in recent months, SOCO International released statements claiming that it would cease operations in Virunga. Von Einsiedel, however, cautioned against hasty celebration, stating that, while many now believe the park to be safe, “Virunga is still very much at risk.”
Von Einsiedel directed those interested in contributing to the cause to virungamovie.com, where donations can be made to either the national park itself or to a foundation for the widows of the rangers who have been killed in the call of duty.
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