Huge Victory for Virunga

Oil company agrees to stop exploring World Heritage Site

About 200 endangered mountain gorillas live in Virunga National Park, which is also Africa's oldest and most diverse park. (ColognetoCapeTown/Getty Images)
Photo: ColognetoCapeTown/Getty Images

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has a lot to deal with. As we saw in one of our favorite documentaries at the 2014 Telluride Mountainfilm festival, a dedicated few fight to protect the UNESCO World Heritage Site from an onslaught of threats, running the gamut from poachers to armed militia. There's also a battle against the British oil company Soco International, which had been surveying the park for its natural resources since 2010. But Virunga gained a surprising victory today when Soco suddenly announced it would halt its exploration.

Among the list of fairly obvious arguments against exploiting Virunga's resources is the fact that it's home to about half of the world's mountain gorillas and is Africa's oldest and most diverse park. UNESCO continues to list Virunga as in danger and urged Soco to cease surveying activities in the park. As other conservation groups took note of the threat, tensions grew. In 2013, the World Wildlife Fund filed a complaint against Soco, which led to death threats to WWF staffers (at the same time, three people ambushed and shot the park's chief warden, who also fought for protection of Virunga's wildlife). This year, other heavy hitters like Desmond Tutu and Richard Branson joined in. After a mediation process with WWF, Soco agreed to wrap up its operations and leave in the next 30 days.

The Guardian's John Vidal calls this one of conservationists' greatest successes in recent years. "If free from the threat of oil, Virunga can be a source of hope for the people of the DRC," WWF-Congo DRC director Raymond Lumbuenamo said in a statement. But that threat remains, as 80 percent of the park is open to oil exploration. The hope is to bring in more "peaceful" industries like hydropower and ecotourism. Until then, strong efforts to protect Virunga must continue. "This is the moment for the international community to support DRC and help us bring lasting change that will ensure Africa's first national park remains the mother park of Africa," Lumbuenamo said.

Want to learn more about Virunga? Check out the trailer to the powerful documentary, currently screening at film festivals around the world:

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