Virunga National Park is Africa's oldest national park. It could soon become Africa's newest oil field.
British oil company Soco International PLC plans to explore for oil inside the park, even though the park is protected under Democratic Republic of Congo law. More than 27,000 people fish in Lake Edward and it provides drinking water to 50,000 people. But thousands more benefit from locally sourced fish, renewable energy and other park-related activities.
Oil development in the park would threaten local communities that rely on the park's natural resources and jeopardize the region's potential for long-term income from sustainable development. Virunga is too important to open up for oil exploration. Around 85% of the Virunga National Park has been allocated as oil concessions, although Soco is currently the only company to move forward with exploration.
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 NationalPark’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.
Countries renew plan to protect mountain gorillas
Posted on 07 April 2014
The three countries home to mountain gorillas have agreed on new measures to conserve the critically endangered animals, and to maximize the economic benefits they bring to local communities.
National park officials from Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have renewed their joint commitment to protect gorilla habitat spanning their shared borders, and recognized the importance of attracting tourists for lucrative gorilla treks.
Mountain gorillas are the only type of great ape in the world that are experiencing an increase in number, yet only about 880 individuals were counted at the last census. Gorilla family groups in each of the range countries have been habituated to the presence of people, and can be visited on carefully controlled tours.
“A portion of the revenue from gorilla tourism is shared with the communities surrounding the animals’ habitats.This creates a strong incentive to protect the animals and the natural setting where they live,” said David Greer, WWF’s African great ape expert. “Visitors also spend money elsewhere during their trip, and that helps the national economy as a whole.”
Insert: Are there any details available about traditional rights and compensation
payments? How is the ownership/land tenure situation in the forested park area in
view of the „illegal“ cutting of wood for charcoal burning?
In Rwanda and Uganda the tourism industry, largely linked to mountain gorillas, accounts for about 8-9 percent of total gross domestic products, World Bank data shows. Gorilla tourism in DRC’s Virunga National Park recently reopened after a period of instability wracked the region.An independent economic analysis of the parkcommissioned by WWF found that tourism in Virunga has the potential to reach an estimated value of US$235 million per year.
Insert: I cannot locate any consideration of the health risk: humans/tourists
carrying contagious diseases to the apes: even flu can be lethal if no antibodies
exist (see passage below).
Alarmingly, 85 per cent of Virunga National Park has been allocated as oil concessions. Mountain gorilla habitat has been spared, but if oil extraction were to occur, the park’s critical ecosystems and rare species could be put at risk.
WWF strongly opposes the exploration plans of UK oil company Soco International PLC, which intends to start seismic testing in the park this month. WWF is a member of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, a coalition of WWF and Flora and Fauna International.Together they work closely with the governments of all three mountain gorilla range countries.
The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) represents three major NGO coalition partners and the respective protected area authorities in the three countries providing shelter for the remaining wild mountain gorilla populations: Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On the IGCP website its „mission“ is defined as „to conserve the critically endangered mountain gorillas and their habitat through partnering with key stakeholders while significantly contributing to sustainable livelihood development.
Nothing is special in the IGCP „philosophy“ neither except again of the prominent species concerned: The closest relatives of gorillas are chimpanzees and humans, all of the Hominidae having diverged from a common ancestor about 7 million years ago (ref. Wikipedia).
We are fully conscious that the habitat of mountain gorillas largely overlaps with a „conflict zone“ in the Congo ( see above) The attack at the Belgian anthropologist and director of Virunga NP is the most recent alarming indication for how much the life of the NP staff is on risk. The bravery of all the park rangers demands our highest respect. Some 150 Virunga rangers have been killed by the rebels since 1990 (according to WWF/Wikipedia): a shocking number! Approximately ten gorilllas have been shot or killed brutally with bush knifes in the southern part of the park, so far the safest retreat. "Seven gorillas killed in seven months is a horrifying statistic and a trend that cannot continue," said Kwame Koranteng, regional representative of WWF's Eastern Africa Regional Program Office.
To which destination will developments take the fate of the surviving apes and humans, all the same? In the IGCP presentation only some marginal attention is directed to the indigenous people in the park and in its peripherial area. Where are their settlements, their traditional territories located? Which part could they perform in this ongoing drama? Their involvement as guardians should be regarded crucial; the Mai-Mai militia groups are community based. To which communities in the realm of the park do the rebels relate to? If to any.
It should be noted that SOCO International has initiated liaison talks with 10 villages in the Virunga park region, according to the company's website...
Armed rangers cannot bring a solution - cannot stop the rebels' frightening guns. A stable finale to the military (=civil war) and political conflict only can evolve from participating village people. In conjunction with the world public. Virunga was a significant tourist attraction before Congo's 1998-2003 war, which devastated the east of the vast Central African country, triggering a humanitarian disaster that has killed more than 4 million people.
The true natives in this constellaton are the apes; they should be kept out totally from any such human turbulences. A full revision of strategy/terms is imperative! We are not aware of any evidence why the Mai-Mai killed gorillas. Out of retaliation reasons? A balanced investigation should be given priority.
One single expatriate (as far as I understand from the press releases) was in charge of park affairs, from 2008 until he was seriously wounded by gun shots earlier this year.. Tourism has only recently commenced after two years of stand still out of security reasons. Can the world public as presented by UNO tolerate any further such shaky, rather uncertain status quo?
On stake is the survival of our closest relative besides the chimpanzee and bonobo. Only a few weeks ago the imminent danger for the Sumatran orang-utans was taken up by the Avaaz Movement. I believe in this campaign by millions of engaged supporters. Conservation as designed and pronouced by the classical representation of IUCN cannot come up with innovative approaches. Neither the WWF intervention (see WWF heading above).
How is it possible that an oil company has got the concession for exploration and subsequent exploitation in a conservation area of this prime importance and value?
How can we believe that such destructive intrusion can be straightened by raising our voices as usual in these never ending disputes that result in a continuous retreat of the conservation front? This natural treasure belongs to the most valuable world heritage we have got on planet Earth – there is no more to discover. And still we just watch the scene without at least improving what is feasible: In the following FAZ article (in German) I noticed this statement about the park director: Quite a few people in Congo point out that without his brave and inventive engagement the gorillas would not exist anymore! It shows how fragile the survival, how little secured the lifes of the gorillas have to be understood. All the millions of people out there who became aware by the media of this tragedy: how could they get involved?
The murder of Dian Fossey in December 1985 and earlier the killing (by pouchers?) of her belowed silverback Digit (cf. relevant Wikipedia articles) have never been fully investigated and were only marginally referred to in the context of the recent events.
Further above I have referred briefly to the high risk by contagious diseases carried by unconscious tourists. At least one lethal case is on record but was largely ignored in view of money revenue by tourism (cf. again Wikipedia).
How many mountain gorilla populations do exist? In case one gorilla group has been infected, how can a total epidemic in the wider realm be prevented?
To my humble opinion the main Virunga population's habitat should be maintained fully isolated as a strict no-go sanctuary. And a satisfactory modus operandi established with the local village people. A separate, marginal population that is open for tourists - including perhaps zoo-reared individuals – could be maintained in a habitat area where in the recent past gorillas existed or still exist.
Insert -About the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project
The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, is dedicated to saving mountain gorilla lives. With so few animals left in the world today, the organization believes it is critical to ensure the health and well being of every individual possible. The organization's international team of veterinarians, the Gorilla Doctors, is the only group providing wild mountain gorillas with direct, hands-on care. The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project partners with the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center to advance One Health strategies for mountain gorilla conservation. www.gorilladoctors.org
Insert - About the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center
The UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, home of the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program and a center of excellence within the School of Veterinary Medicine, is composed of 13 epidemiologists, disease ecologists and ecosystem health clinicians and their staff working at the cutting edge of pathogen emergence and disease tracking in ecosystems. It benefits from the expertise of 50 other participating UC Davis faculty members from many disciplines who are involved in the discovery and synthesis of information about emerging zoonotic diseases (those transmitted between people and animals) and ecosystem health. Its mission is to balance the needs of people, wildlife and the environment through research, education and service. www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/whc.
Molly Feltner, MGVP Communications Officer
My personal concern relates to the lack of certain antivirus immunal systems in the blood of. isolated ape and human communities. For instance, the small tribal communities in the remote Mount Bosavi region of Papua New Guinea suffered deadly epidemics after contacts with the outside world. An estimated 25 % (according to another source 40 % ) of the inhabitants were killed by flu and other virus diseases (measles): fairly harmless infections for us, but lethal for the local small village communities lacking the respective blood antibodies.
Emmanuel de Mérode managed to reduce illegal activities in Virunga, according to the FAZ article (see below) Certainly these facts should be valued as a great achievement! But does'nt this indication also illustrate that until then not all was done that could have been done, to improve the conservation situation ? Now, after the almost fatal experience of the ambush, the plan to protect mountain gorillas is being renewed (see headline above) – do we really have to wait for more attacks in order to take more efficient action?
© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon