Today, 6/11/2014, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced a victory for one of the last habitats for critically endangered mountain gorillas. The oil exploration company, Soco International PLC, has pledged to stop exploring for oil in Africa’s Virunga National Park, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. The Virunga Mountains were spotlighted in the United States as the setting for Dian Fossey’s research made famous in Gorillas in the Mist. The Virunga Mountains, a range of extinct volcanoes that border the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda have been subject to the ravages of war, including a 30-year civil war in Rwanda.
The news is even better. Virunga National Park is home to more varieties of rare plants and animals than any other protected area in Africa, so the protection of this oldest National Park in Africa is a bio-diverse victory. In addition, Soco also committed to never explore for oil in any other World Heritage Sites. According to WWF:
“Soco also committed to never explore for oil in any other World Heritage Sites. This is a game-changing victory for conservation that sends a strong message that World Heritage Sites and other fragile natural areas must be off-limits to development.”
This commitment comes after the WWF petition campaign in which 750,000 signers from all over the world called for an end to exploration in the park. The U.S. Department of State and members of Congress, led by Representative Karen Bass, also worked to ensure the continued protection of Virunga.
Virunga National Park is essential to human health in the region. More than 27,000 people fish in Lake Edward—the part of the park where Soco had already begun seismic testing in April—and it is a critical source of freshwater to 50,000 people. Sustainable management is expected to eclipse possible oil profits. Virunga has the potential to be worth more than US $1.1 U.S. billion annually if developed sustainably, rather than being exploited for oil extraction.
Only about 720 Mountain gorillas live in the wild. Those that survive in the park, live largely due the efforts of the Congolese Conservation Authority.