Although Virunga National Park’s pristine wilderness has been granted protections under Congolese and international law, companies from Europe and elsewhere are pursing plans for oil extraction in and around the park.
WWF urges governments to cancel concessions and companies against involvement.
Oil exploration in Virunga is illegal
According to the laws of Democratic Republic of the Congo, activities harmful to the environment are prohibited in all protected areas, including national parks.
Major oil exploitation could involve disruptive seismic tests, forest clearing, deep underground drilling, or the laying of vulnerable oil pipelines. The additional human presence required for these activities could also be damaging to the park’s ecosystems.
As a signatory to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, Democratic Republic of the Congo has agreed to respect the treaty’s requirements for the protection World Heritage Sites.
Oil concessions cover 85% of Virunga National Park
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Sustainable livelihoods at risk
Many residents living around Virunga National Park depend on its health for their livelihoods.
About 30,000 people benefit economically from fishing within the park, and another 20,000 benefit from commercial activities related to the fishing industry.
Additionally, revenue generated by mountain gorilla ecotourism programmes has provided funding for conservation work and for community development projects in the area. In one nearby village, citizens conducted a public rally to voice their concerns over the proposed oil exploration.
It is feared that the area could suffer from socio-economic tensions, crime and insecurity if development were to proceed, as witnessed in the Niger Delta.
UNESCO recognizes Virunga National Park as having the most diverse habitats of any park in Africa, from forests and savannas, to swamps and volcanic peaks.
The park is also unique in containing more individual species than nearly any other place in the world. Because of its extraordinary landscapes and high level of biodiversity, Virunga National Park was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1979.
The areas of Virunga National Park allocated as oil concessions cover around 85 per cent of its land, and the habitats of endangered chimpanzees, hippos, and forest elephants.
Oil development could also put at risk hundreds of lesser-known fragile species such as the okapi, which is found in no other country in the world. Over 200 species of mammals live in Virunga National Park, including 22 types of primates. The park is also home to over 700 kinds of birds.
Okapi, known as forest giraffes, are only found in Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The most famous residents of Virunga National Park are critically endangered mountain gorillas, of which only 880 individuals remain in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.
While the habitat of Virunga National Park’s 200 mountain gorillas does not currently fall within an oil concession, development in the park could negatively affect their security.
Allowing illegal activities, such as oil operations, to be conducted in the park fundamentally undermines the authority of park managers, and will make it difficult for them to guard against intrusion by others seeking to exploit its land, trees and animals.
WWF is asking Soco International PLC to abandon its plans for oil exploration and exploitation within Virunga National Park in accordance with the country’s laws. The organization welcomes Total SA's pledge to respect park boundaries, but remains concerned about operations directly outside park borders.
Furthermore, WWF echos the World Heritage Committee's that all authorizations for companies to undertake exploration activities within park boundaries be revoked.