Gorilla Kiki, left, with baby gorilla Kimani, eats a popsicle to stay cool. (Photographer: JB Reed/Bloomberg News.)

Gorillas Face Grave Risk if Congo Allows Oil Search, Groups Say

(Bloomberg) -- Environmental groups involved in running two wildlife reserves in the Democratic Republic of Congo said they oppose plans by the government to open the areas to oil exploration.

Congo’s cabinet last month authorized the creation of an inter-institutional committee that will discuss declassifying parts of the Virunga and Salonga national parks to permit a search for crude. Virunga is home to most of the about 1,000 mountain gorillas still alive, while Salonga is the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest reserve. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The committee, to be made up of officials from the presidency, members of parliament, the government and civil-society groups, will recommend whether or not the authorities should proceed with plans to remove the protected status from 22 percent of Virunga and about 40 percent of Salonga.

The World Wildlife Fund, which co-manages Salonga, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which provides funds to both parks, oppose oil exploration and production in areas that are currently protected, WWF Congo spokesman Dandy Yela and WCS Communications Director Stephan Sautner said Wednesday.

The WWF encourages the government to rethink its “intent to consider partial degazettement of the two parks,” Yela said in an emailed response to questions. “Extractive activity poses a grave risk to their exceptional flora and fauna as well as the lives and livelihoods of neighboring communities.”

The WWF and the WCS will be invited to contribute to the deliberations about the proposal, Emmanuel Kayumba, chief of staff at the Oil Ministry, said on Wednesday.

“Now that the matter has been debated by the Council of Ministers, we can contact them officially and we are in the process of preparing the correspondence to do that,” Kayumba said. The ministry has also discussed the possibility of oil exploration in protected areas with OCEAN, a local environmental group, he said.

A spokesman for the Virunga Alliance, which manages Virunga, declined to comment.

The WWF previously wrote to Oil Minister Aime Ngoy Mukena “to draw our attention to the fact that an oil block is in Salonga and the minister replied that we are going to put in place a commission to reflect on this matter,” Kayumba said.

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