Controversial aerial studies focused at finding oil under Africa’s eldest national park have been begun by a British company betwixt fears that drilling in the region could genuinely threaten the world’s last asylum for mountain gorillas.
The moves towards possible oil drilling in Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have been denounced by the United Kingdom government and by the World Wildlife Fund.
This week World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is starting a campaign, Draw the Line, against the exploitation of Virunga National Park, which was gazzated in 1925 and designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
SOCO International, whose head offices are found in London, has defended its aerial study, saying it was being governed and monitored under the terms of the Environmental Acceptability Certificate issued by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ministry of environment, nature protection and tourism.
At the same time prior in this year the UNESCO world heritage committee called for the retraction of all such Virunga oil licenses and appealed to two concession holders, Total and SOCO International, not to embrace exploration in world heritage sites. Total has since consented to respect Virunga National park’s current borders, leaving SOCO as the main oil and Gas Company planning to explore inside the national park’s 7,800 sq km. It claims its region of interest is not near the gorillas’ habitat. Rangers and wildlife experts oppose this idea.
Virunga national park is as of now in a delicate state, because of poachers. Also, it sits close to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s boundaries with Uganda and Rwanda and has been influenced by refugees and militias throughout both the Congo civil war and the Rwandan genocide, and in addition continuous conflicts with rebel groups. It is home to 200 of the endangered mountain gorillas, a quarter of the world population. Despite the fact that recent years have been a success story for the national park, thanks to the efforts of protectionists and local park rangers and the number of mountain gorillas has more than multiplied in the previous years, numerous park staff have been killed by poachers and militias. Virunga National Park is temporarily closed to tourist as a result of the rebel activities.
A year ago the United Kingdom government expressed its opposition to oil drilling inside the Virunga National Park. A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The UK opposes oil exploration inside Virunga National Park, a world heritage site recorded by UNESCO as being ‘in threat’. We urge any company included, and the government of Democratic Republic of Congo, to respect the global conventions to which it is a signatory.”
Drew McVey is the provincial manager for East Africa at World Wildlife Fund in the UK and has recently come back from the region. He said: “Virunga has been a phenomenal success in the previous few years. We’ve seen the population of mountain gorillas in the park jump and tourists are beginning to come to visit them. As far as the local people, they comprehend the imperativeness of the mountain gorillas to their prospective flourishing, and we have even had reports of rebel groups in the national park no longer poaching, but making money pretending to be approved tour operators. Unexpectedly that is an indication of how significant these big mammals are.
“Virunga National park has the most biodiversity in all of Africa … it is vigorously populated around the national park, so there’s a big demand on the park and its resources. The conflict that has gone ahead in the region includes another dimension of fragility.
“Anyhow now to have this awful threat hanging over it of oil exploration is just so disturbing.”