Virunga under threat

One of Africa’s richest natural treasures is at risk from the exploration plans of an oil conglomerate.
 
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© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon
Found along the equator on the western edge of Democratic Republic of the Congo, Virunga National Park is one of the world’s most extraordinary natural places. It is Africa’s oldest national park, a World Heritage Site and a Ramsar wetland of international importance.

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.

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 and mineral extraction have been found by UNESCO to be incompatible with the spirit of the convention. Alarmed by the allocation of oil concessions within Virunga National Park, UNESCO’s Director General has called for the Congolese government to “abandon all plans for oil extraction.”  Similarly, the World Heritage Committee has urged that all oil permits be canceled

Oil concessions cover 85% of Virunga National Park

 / ©: WWF
Click image to enlarge.

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.
 / ©: Kate Holt / WWF-UK
A local woman on a road leading to Virunga National Park, near the provincial capital of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
© Kate Holt / WWF-UK

Rich in plant and animal biodiversity

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.
 / ©: WWF/PJ Stephenson
Okapi, known as forest giraffes, are only found in Democratic Republic of the Congo.
© WWF/PJ Stephenson

A refuge for gorillas

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.
Mountain gorillas, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo / ©: Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon
Mountain gorillas, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.
© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

Assessing environmental impacts

The Congolese government has ordered that all oil activities within the park be suspended until a strategic environmental assessment has been completed.
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. 
 / ©: WWF / Martin Leers
Oil exploration threatens the gorillas of Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site.
© WWF / Martin Leers

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