Unrest in the DRC threatens the Virungas

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by Rick LoBello, One Earth One Time

Ever since I completed my guide book to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda I have tried to keep up with all the news from Virunga National Park just across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.   Earlier this year there was some great news coming out of East Africa on the numbers of critically endangered mountain gorillas and how they were up, following conservation efforts in the transboundary Virunga Massif, one of the two remaining areas where the great ape is still found.

Survey results revealed that numbers have increased to 604 from an estimated 480 in 2010. This brings the global wild population of mountain gorillas to an estimated 1,004 when combined with published figures from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (where the rest of the sub-species is found) and makes it the only great ape in the world that is considered to be increasing in population.

All the good news from the survey is promising, but what is happening in the DRC threatens the mountain gorilla like no other threat to the species across its range.  No matter how well the Rwandan government protects Volcanoes National Park, what happens in this part of the world where over 5.4 million people were killed during the Congo War of 1998 to 2003, is critical to the Virunga ecosystem. No park is an island and there is little doubt that the gorillas and other creatures in the Virungas are threatened by human activities on any side of the border as I discuss in my book, Guide to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, Home to Critically Endangered Mountain Gorillas.

When I revised my book this past summer,Virunga National Park had closed due to increased violence in the area as a result of increased attacks on park rangers and the abduction of two British tourists. Tourism was scheduled to resume on June 4, 2018, but the news of the park reopening was short lived when a few weeks after the announcement the park announced that it would close to tourism until sometime in 2019.   Today the situation in the park is getting worse by the day.

In 2014 a new threat to Virunga National Park emerged from the British Petroleum Company Soco International. Soco was planning to explore for oil inside the park even though the park is protected by the DRC. According to the World Wildlife Fund oil development in the park would threaten local communities that depend on the park’s natural resources. At Lake Edward for example more that 27,000 people fish for a living and over 50,000 people depend on the lake for their drinking water. Worldwide opposition with the support of the European Union and the Netflix film Virunga has helped, but in April, 2018 the DRC government was seeking to explore for oil in the park.  Months later the government decided to move forward with plans to drill in the park.

I hope to return to Rwanda in the near future to see what else I can do personally to help encourage more people to get involved in helping to alleviate this threat to the mountain gorillas and the future of the ecosystem as a whole.   In the meantime I encourage you to help in any way you can by supporting the Virunga Alliance in any way you can.   If you would like to help me with my efforts I can be contacted by email at ricklobello@gmail.com.  I also have a Friends of Great Apes Facebook group you can join.


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