Democratic Republic of Congo to Auction Oil Rights to Virunga Park

I’ve been watching Sir David Attenborough’s magnificent Our Planet series on Netflix, despite the pain it exacts as I witness the devastating plight of wildlife to survive in the context of climate change, largely the result of human exploitation and ubiquitous indifference.

In and around the Bukima tented camp, located in Virunga National Park. Bukima camp is the base from which to see eight separate groups of mountain gorillas, including members of the Rugendo group, pictured here.

In the third episode exploring jungle habitat, Attenborough takes us to the Democratic Republic of Congo and its endangered Silverback gorillas, so strikingly like ourselves. Lamentably, their numbers have dropped by fifty percent, says Attenborough.

The good news is that their numbers have actually increased, according to methodical estimates by The World Life Conservation Society (May 2021). Previously around 600, they’re up to 1,000 due to concerted conservation efforts, a number still perilously low. Their principal habitat is the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park.

In and around Mikeno Lodge. Virunga Park Rangers work with hounds and a spaniel. The hounds help hunt poachers while the Spaniel helps to find weapons and ivory. Ranger Andre Bauma has been taking care of orphan gorillas for more than four years.

The bad news is that the DRC has just announced its intent to auction oil and gas permits in the park, which also features the world’s largest tropical peatlands, constituting the earth’s most extensive carbon sinks. These beautiful creatures have already endured grevious injury due to habitat loss, hunting, poaching, population encroachment, disease —and yes—human conflict, with splinter rebel groups hiding out in the park.

Virunga is a cornucopia of wildlife, both flora and fauna. Africa’s oldest reserve, its 1.2 million acres provide sanctuary for 700 types of birds and 220 species of mammals, including elephants, giraffes and chimpanzees. I shudder to think of the horrid consequences of its demise, wrought by human greed. In the last decade, more than 150 of the park’s rangers have been killed.

Were I younger and financially able, Virunga is where I’d be headed. I believe strongly in eco-tours. For the Congolese, it’s been a money maker, with $2 million in annual earnings.

Hats off to actor Leonardo DiCaprio for his 2014 Netflix documentary, Virunga, and commitment to the survival of the imperiled Silverbacks. It proved successful in halting oil exploration in the park at the time.

My hope is that we can exert pressure on oil corporations to refrain, as we successfully did in 2014. The best way is to discourage insurers and banks from financing the project. As I write, Congolese and international NGOs have submitted a petition of 100,000 signatures, requesting Congo’s President to halt new oil development


And Then There Were None: Mountain Gorillas in Imminent Danger


In this central African park.
Desperate refugees crowd park boundaries.
Charcoal producers strip forests.
Then, last summer [2007], someone killed seven of these magnificent creatures in cold blood.
  (National Geographic)


Yet another species, this time one of our closest relatives, faces a grave threat of extinction– mountain apes, of whom only 700-800 remain.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reportedly has asked UNESCO to redraw the boundaries of one of Africa’s largest wildlife sanctuaries, Virunga Park, to facilitate oil drilling.

Consisting of 300 square miles, or 7800 square kilometers, the park shelters not only the gorillas, but other wildlife and Lake Edward, a key fishing resource.

In 2010, the DRC signed a contract with British firm, Soco, to begin exploration, despite its designation as a World Heritage Site, in violation of international law.

Such scenarios inevitably occur whenever economic interests are pitted against environmental concerns. In Africa, however, grinding poverty is so widespread that nations like the DRC must prioritize developing income resources.

On the other hand, much of that poverty is rooted in Africa’s post colonial history of chronic civil strife and kleptomaniac leadership.

Properly developed in a context of political stability, the DRC is rich in natural resources that could vastly improve the well being of its people.

In the DRC, the resultant instability and economic fallout has created anarchy, as rival militias composed of M23, Hutus, Tutsis and Congolese Revolutionary Army deserters roam the country, raping, plundering and killing.

Virunga National Park has, unfortunately, turned into a quagmire of lawlessness as a hideaway for militants, who use the Park’s wildlife and forest for subsistence.

Additionally, nearly 100,000 refugees live on the Park’s fringes, leading to deforestation and poaching.

In 2004, 1,500 hectares of prime mountain gorilla habitat were cleared by illegal settlers in Virunga National Park, according to evidence uncovered by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature.

What we know is that at least 40 mountain gorillas have been killed in the last several years.

As is, only 480 mountain gorillas remain in the Park’s confines, with no place to go.

Now the oil interests have moved in.

It’s a tragedy in the making.

Gorillas are gentle herbivores, who seek isolation.

As you might suspect, they have a lot in common with you and me.

Gestation is 8.5 months, approximating our own.

Births are nearly always singular.

Mating, unlike that of many animals, can take place anytime.

Helpless at birth, gorillas crawl at two months and walk at about nine months.

They are very intelligent and live in organized troops, governed by a dominant male known as a Silverback.

Diseases like ebola and those acquired from proximity to humans increasingly pose an additional threat.

In northern Gabon, for example, the entire protected population of gorillas and chimpanzees succumbed to ebola in 1994.

There’s also the bush meat trade along with lustful trophy seekers.

While international wildlife groups have contributed funding to shore up anti-poaching patrols, there are simply too few rangers, given the park’s vastness. Inadequately equipped, they’re no match for the often superior armed militia factions. Sadly, 140 rangers have lost their lives defending wildlife.

Their great champion, Dian Fossey, the world’s preeminent primatologist, was brutally murdered in 1985.

As a child I’d lie at night, thinking of Africa, teeming with wildlife, vast herds of elephants, rhino, hippopotami, zebras, antelopes, wildebeests, giraffes and, of course, isolated savannas and mountains abundant in gorillas, chimps and monkeys.

But that was a child’s imagining.

The adult vista, on the contrary, confronts us with vanishing wildlife and the likely soon extinction of these gentle creatures, our human cousins,

When I think of today’s Democratic Republic of Congo, flashes of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness with its rampant savagery flood my thoughts and of Kurtz’s agonized lament when confronted with human culpability, “The horror! The horror!”


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