The DR Congo government has put the brakes on oil exploration activities in Virunga National Park, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site inhabited by some the last endangered mountain gorillas in the world.
Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism Jose E.B. Endundo, issued a letter to the worldwide conservation community clarifying the government's position on the published intentions of a publicly-traded British oil company, Soco International, to undertake oil exploration in Virunga National Park.
Africa's oldest national park, Virunga is inhabited by approximately 200 of the world's last 780 mountain gorillas as well as a small population of eastern lowland gorillas.
Endundo initiated what he called "a comprehensive, transparent and inclusive" Strategic Environmental Assessment to analyze the best options available to the Congolese people.
The assessment will provide recommendations to the ministry, which will decide "which of the social and economic benefits will ensure true development for the region and its people," said Endundo, adding, "The SEA will be conducted with support from a number of donors of public aid."
Virunga National Park lies in eastern DR Congo and covers 7,800 square kilometers. The park is managed by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature-ICCN the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature.
It contains more species of mammals, reptiles and birds than any other protected area in Africa and has an exceptional diversity of landscapes stretching from the glaciers of the Ruwenzori Mountains, at over 17,000 feet, to impenetrable forests, savannas, rivers, and lake ecosystems.
In addition to the new threat of oil development in the park, the Virunga subpopulation of mountain gorillas has already suffered numerous impacts from more than a decade of war and instability in the region, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in its Red List of Threatened Species, which classes mountain gorillas as Endangered.
Existing threats include incursions by militia, habitat destruction for firewood and farmland, illegal cattle grazing, illegal timber extraction, and illegal hunting, including snares set for other mammals such as antelope that can injure or kill gorillas.
In 2004, 15 square kilometers of the park was deforested for conversion to farmland, and recently there has been a sharp increase in timber extraction for the illegal production of charcoal.
There has also been a resurgence of poaching for the illegal pet trade and bushmeat.