Leeds doctor's terrifying ordeal after being kidnapped by militants while visiting African wildlife park

A young Leeds woman and her boyfriend were held at gunpoint after being kidnapped by rebels while on a gorilla-watching trip.

An armed ranger at Virunga National Park during the eruption of the Mount Nyamulagira volcano in 2011
An armed ranger at Virunga National Park during the eruption of the Mount Nyamulagira volcano in 2011

Former Boston Spa Academy pupil Bethan Davies, 30, from Thorp Arch, and her boyfriend Robert Jesty, 29, were snatched from their Land Rover while visiting the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year.

The park is a renowned gorilla sanctuary but located in a politically unstable region where rebel factions are active following decades of civil war.

Bethan and Robert, who met while working as intensive care doctors at King's College Hospital in London, were released in May 2018 after three days in captivity, and have spoken about their ordeal in an interview to The Times this week.

They were travelling with a local driver and a ranger when their vehicle was ambushed and the two Congolese staff shot. The ranger, a young woman, later died.

The militiamen demanded a $200,000 ransom for the couple's release after initially robbing them of around $200 that they were carrying.

Bethan said she was '100 per cent convinced' they'd be killed during the ordeal. They were marched into the jungle by men wielding Kalashnikov rifles, some of whom were drunk on banana whisky. Robert was told to use his mobile phone to arrange payment of the ransom, and managed to find enough 3G coverage to call a friend who was holidaying in the Scottish Highlands, who then alerted the Foreign Office.

They had booked a dream trip to the Virunga reserve to see the world's only surviving mountain gorillas in their natural habitat while backpacking through Africa.

The park's director Emmanuel de Merode, who is descended from Belgian royalty, flew back from the UK, where he had been visiting his daughter at her Scottish boarding school, to negotiate with the rebels and the couple were eventually rescued. They were taken to a British diplomat's house in nearby Goma to recover.

Staff are battling to keep Virunga open and protect its endangered wildlife despite the bloodshed in the region, which has seen over 176 rangers murdered in 20 years. De Merode himself was shot in 2014. The guerrillas are active in poaching and compete for access to the valuable minerals and natural resources in the park, which is the size of Cornwall.

After Bethan and Robert's kidnapping, the park was closed to tourists for eight months, but partially re-opened in February with a security force trained by Belgian commandos. The couple have since moved to Bristol, where Bethan now works as a GP, and spoke publicly about their experience for the first time this month.