Pounding the path at a steady pace with a heavy weight on his back, Emmanuel de Merode is certainly putting every effort into his training for tomorrow's London marathon.

But there's something very unusual about Emmanuel's fitness regime, which sees him being chased by a 10-year-old female mountain gorilla, Ndakasi, weighing more than 60kg, who paws at his shirt as he runs before jumping on his back for the ride, said the
Daily Mail.

Later she decides to chase Emmanuel through the foliage, but is interrupted when another gorilla, Matabishi, comes over to give him a hug.

Emmanuel is Chief Warden and Director of Virunga National Park, home to the highly endangered mountain gorillas of eastern Congo, and is running the marathon to help raise $1.7 million for his beloved creatures - and in memory of his many colleagues who have died protecting them.


Heartwarming footage shows the bond between Emmanuel and Ndakasi, who has known him all her life and sees him as a playmate on her level.

After a chase from Ndakasi, Emmanuel is able to take a rest when he gets a hug from Matabishi. Photo / Virunga
After a chase from Ndakasi, Emmanuel is able to take a rest when he gets a hug from Matabishi. Photo / Virunga

"I have known each of the gorilla orphans since they were babies and they all remember me and are eager to play and get re-acquainted," Emmanuel told Femail.

"They were always able to outrun me, but now they've got a lot bigger and stronger it's not quite the same as when they were little."

His training in the Senkwekwe Centre - the world's only facility to care for critically endangered mountain gorillas - is especially poignant for Emmanuel as it was founded following one of the darkest moments in Virunga's recent history.

In 2007, Senkwekwe, the dominant silverback of Virunga's Rugendo group of mountain gorillas was murdered by armed men, along with three other members of his family.

It was after this tragic event that Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian conservationist who has worked in Congo for the past 20 years, was appointed Director and Chief Warden of Virunga with the task of rebuilding the park after years of war.

Since then, he has been tirelessly working for the park, including galvanising public support for the creation of the specialist centre to care for orphan gorillas.

"Even though we shouldn't compare them to ourselves, gorillas are so human in their behaviours, they have all our best aspects - affection, the importance of relationships and family," Emmanuel said.

"In Senkwekwe, we see these family ties have forged between four orphans from very different families. There is also a profoundly strong bond between each of the orphans and the human who have cared for them."

Today there are four gorillas living in the centre - Ndakasi, Ndeze, Maisha and Matabishi.

Ten-year-old Ndakasi had a particularly hard start in life.

Her mother was shot by poachers when she was just 2 months old. She was badly dehydrated, in shock, and very frightened, and thankfully was found by Virunga's Park rangers, and taken to the safety of the Senkwekwe Centre.

"Ndakasi was very sick when our rangers found her, and suffered acute pneumonia which was a huge worry for all our staff. But thanks to their care, she pulled through," Emmanuel recalled.

"Ndakasi was named after a much-loved ranger, Benjamin Ndakasi Lola, who passed away in 2007.

"It was a way of honoring his service to the park - 20 years as a ranger is an immense commitment.

Ndakasi loves to clamber on to Emmanuel's shoulders, as she remembers him from when she was a baby. Photo / Virunga
Ndakasi loves to clamber on to Emmanuel's shoulders, as she remembers him from when she was a baby. Photo / Virunga

"Virunga's rangers do one of the most dangerous jobs in conservation, over 150 have lost their lives in the line of duty. This year I am running the Virgin Money London Marathon in memory of our fallen rangers, like Benjamin Ndakasi Lola, with the aim of raising $1.7 million to help support the widows of rangers who have been killed, to ensure their families are supported."

IN 2014, Emmanuel and his colleagues from Virunga National Park feature in the BAFTA and Academy Award nominated documentary Virunga (2014), executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The film documents the efforts of the park's rangers to protect Virunga against the threat of oil exploration from a British company.

Just days before the film was released, Emmanuel was shot multiple times during a roadside assassination attempt.

"I was hit by two bullets, one of which punctured my lung, the other my liver," he said.

"I didn't know whether I would live, and if I did, whether I would walk ever again, never mind run. I was extremely lucky to have survived and to get back to work within just a few weeks."

But the memory of those who were not so lucky will be spurring on Emmanuel as he runs 26 miles through London on Sunday.

"The gorillas are a symbol for local people to rally behind - something precious that needs to be protected for all of humanity," Emmanuel said.

"Virunga's rangers have given their lives for those gorillas and this park, in the knowledge that the park represents the possibility of a bright, sustainable future for those communities for decades to come.

"I was extremely fortunate to have survived the attempt that was made on my life. I was able to see my family again and return to my work with Virunga, but many of our rangers have not been so lucky.

The role of Virunga National Park ranger is one of the most dangerous in conservation. As the biggest employer in the region, our staff each have an average of six dependents.

"We are committed to supporting the widows and families of rangers killed or injured in the line of duty. It's the least we can do for those who have sacrificed so much for the rest of us.

The World We Want Foundation will match every donation that is made to the park until 27th April. For more on Emmanuel's marathon fundraising click here.


Located in eastern Congo, Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been at the centre conservation threats and conflict threats, with the park's 600 rangers at constant risk of violence.

The natural wealth of Virunga has fuelled armed conflict and poaching in the region, which at one point threatened to almost destroy the park.

It shot to prominence in 2014 with the Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga, and is home to a quarter of the world's remaining 1,000 mountain gorillas.

Over the course of a century their numbers have been depleted by uncontrolled hunting, disease, capture as zoo exhibits and pets, destruction of their habitat and war.

They can only be found in four national parks around the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC and they are still considered critically endangered.

Being a ranger at Virunga is frequently described as the most dangerous job in wildlife, and more than 150 have been killed protecting the gorillas.