Gorillas still under severe security threat
In this fragile and insecure context, the UK-based oil company SOCO is still moving ahead with its plans to look for oil in the Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site. Leader of WWF’s Green Heart of Africa Global Initiative Marc Languy says, “We know that SOCO has put all its activities around Lake Edward on hold because of the recent fighting. But this doesn’t mean it has changed its plans to start exploration. In fact, SOCO now own 85% of the concession after recently buying the shares of Ophir Energy, another UK-based oil company.” In an extremely poor region with a government still is not able to manage the potentials profits from the countries resources, the oil rush led by European companies will have a strong destabilizing effect on the park and neighboring communities.
Not only are the mountain gorillas under threat, but hippo families are being killed by militia groups, with their meat sold in return for weapons. The hippo population in Virunga used to be the largest single population in the world with an estimated 27,000 in Lake Edward in the 1970s. They make up a critical component of the ecological system. In 2003, however only 350 were left. Thanks to conservation efforts of park authorities and WWF, hippo numbers have increased to 1,200 today. The recent violence again puts this protected species under sever threat.
Armed militias present in Virunga National Park and the whole of eastern DRC profit from the easy access to natural resources such as coltan, gold, and, if the oil companies continue their exploration in the future, perhaps the new black gold --crude oil. This makes the park a very dangerous place to be for the animals and people living in it and for those who rely on its unique ecosystems for their livelihoods. After a couple of years of relative stability in the park with steady growth in ecotourism and its associated economic benefits to the state and local communities, the current conflict is a huge morale set-back for all people protecting and depending on the park.