Oil companies to enter Mountain Gorilla range

Posted on December 4, 2010

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As part of my homework this week, I was asked to watch a documentary on the Mountain Gorillas. Out of all the primates I am learning about, the gorillas are my favourite. They truly are the gentle giants of the primate world and it would be a huge honour to one day see them in their natural habitat.

The programme – Gorillas Revisited with Sir David Attenborough – looks back at his trip to Virunga National Park in the 1970’s  and his first encounter with the great apes – and the state of their populations now.

Courtesy of PA, Attenborough in Rwanda 1978

The world’s remaining Mountain Gorillas can be found in four national parks in Africa which are split into two regions. One population inhabits the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda; the second population is in the region referred to as the Virungas, which includes Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda), Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) and Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Virunga National Park became  a world heritage site in 1979, but these beautiful animals are still tragically at risk and are listed as critically endangered. Their plight was first highlighted by the remarkable American naturalist, Diane Fossey. She dedicated almost 20 years of her life researching these great apes and was a key-player to educating the global public about their vulnerability.

Although populations are still fragile, over the years there has been a small rise in numbers.  But there are still only thought to be around 700-800 left. Now these precious few are once again under threat.

Last week at the Cancun climate change summit in Mexico, delegates discussed a scheme known as the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (Redd). The premise of the scheme is to pay countries billions of pounds a year for leaving their trees standing. Sounds good so far, right?

Leading a group of African nations was the DRC. However, in the last week a letter has been leaked to the press, which shows that the DRC has granted a licence for two UK companies to drill for oil in the park! Oh and here’s the kick in the teeth –  the DRC made a commitment to protect Virunga and receives worldwide conservation funding for the park which includes millions from the EU alone.

A UN report has described Virunga as having the “greatest biological diversity of any park in Africa.” As well as the gorillas, there are chimpanzees, lions, elephants, and migratory birds so rare it has special wetland status. If firms are allowed in to drill, it will have unimaginable consequences for the biodiversity. All the animals will inevitably suffer whether it’s directly or indirectly.

Speaking to Reuters news agency, the two firms, Soco International and Dominion Petroleum claim their presence will increase security in park, which has had problems with poachers in the area. Soco International added it couldn’t see any problem, if it’s done properly. Dominion is already working in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The newspaper, The Times, spoke to a Congolese delegate, Vincent Kasulu, who is leading the country on Redd. He told the paper: “If we see oil that can bring a lot of money and there is no commitment on Redd, then the Government has to decide. That is why we are pushing for the international community to recognise the importance of forests.”

The United Nations’ cultural arm UNESCO has appealed to Congolese President Joseph Kabila to guarantee there will be no oil exploration in the forest home of the gorillas. For the moment, all we can do is sit, wait and watch, but I’m not holding my breath!

Historically man has been known to have a ridiculous propensity to plunder and pillage the earth’s resources to the point of exhaustion. Just look at rate at which deforestation has taken place in the Amazon. When will it stop? Dr Jane Goodall recently wrote how important it is to protect the forests, which in turn can also help the local people who live close to them.

I am concerned about those oil licences that have been granted and although there is nothing to stamp my feet about at the moment, it is with a heavy heart that I write this post. I sincerely hope each of you will try to act responsibly in your lives and pass on this message to the next generation.  Fossey is probably turning in her grave…..so let’s leave the last word to her.

Diane Fossey, courtesy of PA.

This quote is from her diary, which was found after she was brutally murdered: “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.”.

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