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May 15


​Africa’s Oldest National Park on Deathbed.

Congo's Virunga National park could be no more courtesy of oil exploration pursuits. This is in direct defiance of request from the United Nations, conservation groups and the British government. The park is home to Africa's largest surviving population of mountain gorillas and hippos and includes mountain forests, wetlands, savanna grassland, volcanoes and lakes.

Virunga National Park lies east of Democratic Republic of Congo, centered on Lake Edward and the Ruwenzori Mountains. It was created by Belgium’s King Albert I in 1925. Virunga contains roughly a quarter of 880 million gorillas that remain in the wild yet in this wake, a growing sense of crisis about the future of the park looms. The park once held the record for the largest hippo population. The story is different now with the numbers estimated at 1200, a fact attributed to adoption of Hippo meat as a delicacy in some parts of Africa. Moreover, hippo teeth are regarded by some as a substitute for elephant ivory.

Things got to the worst weeks ago after the park’s chief warden, Belgian prince and conservationist Emmanuel de Merode, was shot during an ambush on the road to the park. There's no evidence to link up the death to environmental backlash. It is well known rangers are prey to militia away from their posts, with some 150 rangers having been killed in the past 20 years.

The big blow came in 2010 when DRC government defied international criticism to allocate 85 per cent of the park to oil concessions. With the French oil giant Total last year ruling out any drilling in Virunga, London-based oil firm Soco International remained the only concessionaire with active plans in the park. Soco believes that reserves currently being explored by several companies over the border in Uganda extend into the park. More controversially, Soco claims that the oil, which is thought to be mostly under and around Lake Edward, can be extracted from Virunga without doing environmental harm. And the company suggests that its activities can “help raise living standards for local communities to levels sufficient to reduce their pressure and negative impacts on the protected area.” So far Soco says that it has improved a road, built a medical center, and installed a mobile phone mast at Nyakakoma, one of three legal fishing villages in the park.

The DRC government, whose state oil company has a 15-per-cent stake in the enterprise, reiterated its support for the oil exploration in a statement in March. This support extends to the government agency in the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), which issued a permit to Soco allowing the oil-exploration activity. Internationally, there is little support for the idea of seeking oil in an iconic national park that was elevated to the status of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.

All eyes are on this park with environmentalists crossing their fingers for the best. In the meantime, Virunga's death could just be a next step way.

- Additional reporting Yale Environment 360

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