Mar 18
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In the News: Oil exploration suspended in Virunga National Park

The Democratic Republic of Congo government has suspended oil exploration activities in the Virunga National Park, home to endangered mountain gorillas, following campaigns by environmental groups.  

The Environment Ministry issued a statement saying that all activities would be put on hold until the environmental impact of such a project was thoroughly assessed.

Photo of mountain gorilla silverback

Mountain gorilla silverback

One of the most bio-diverse places on earth 

Established in 1925, Virunga National Park was Africa’s first National Park. It is thought to be one of the most bio-diverse places on earth, containing a world famous population of mountain gorillas, a subspecies of the eastern gorilla, as well as important populations of forest elephants, chimpanzees and hippos. It is also listed on the UN’s list of World Heritage sites in danger

Despite its evident importance for the preservation of numerous endangered species, UK-based companies SOCO and Dominio intend to drill for oil throughout the park. This has raised fears amongst conservationists that drilling would damage the park’s ecosystem, as well as increase tension in a politically volatile area where numerous armed groups continue to operate.

Photo of forest elephant herd in deep jungle

Forest elephant herd in deep jungle

A commitment to long-term prosperity 

However, the Environment Ministry has rejected the companies’ Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), branding it “premature and superficial.” Minister José E.B. Endundo said he would not allow work within the park for now, and said his government would initiate a thorough and transparent Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to decide whether such a project could be considered in one of the world’s most precious and fragile nature parks. 

In a WWF press release, Allard Blom, Director of WWF’s Congo program, said “we applaud the Environment Ministry for recognizing the value in preserving natural resources in Virunga National Park, reflecting their commitment to long-term prosperity over the short-term profits of oil companies.” 

“What we hope to see next is a firm declaration guaranteeing there will be no exploration in this pristine park now or in the future. Allowing oil exploration in this iconic park would set an extremely dangerous precedent that even the most precious places on earth are open for oil and gas development.”

Photo of mountain gorilla with Volcano Visoke, Virunga National Park, in background

Mountain gorilla with Volcano Visoke, Virunga National Park, in background

Drilling to continue in Uganda 

Oil drilling is still expected to proceed in the Ugandan owned part of the National Park despite the Congolese decision, leading WWF to call for the companies to respect the law and abandon the harmful exploration plans. 

Read the WWF press release 

Watch 24 videos of the eastern gorilla on ARKive. 

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author

Dec 8
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In the News: Mountain gorilla numbers increasing

Conservation is working for one of the world’s most charismatic animals – the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei).

Mountain gorilla infant

The mountain gorilla subspecies (Gorilla beringei beringei) has a particularly long coat, which is blue-black to brownish-grey in colour.

The mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Massif – a key habitat for mountain gorillas that spans three national parks on the border between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – was surveyed in March and April of this year. Conservationists say that the census revealed 480 gorillas living in 36 groups. A similar survey in 2003 estimated the population at just 380 individuals, so the latest figures suggest an encouraging population increase of approximately 25 percent in the last 7 years.

The census was a massive operation that spanned two months and three countries, and involved multinational teams systematically sweeping over 1,000 kilometres of challenging terrain. The teams covered the entire range of the mountain gorilla in the Virunga Massif, meticulously documenting fresh signs of mountain gorilla groups and conducting genetic analyses of fecal samples to estimate just how many gorillas survive in the region.

Mountain gorilla silverback in habitat

Mountain gorillas are found in areas of dense vegetation at altitudes between 1,160 and 4,100 metres where they are confined by surrounding cultivation.

A subspecies of the eastern gorilla, the largest of the living apes, the Critically Endangered mountain gorilla only survives in the Virunga Massif and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, where a further 302 gorillas are thought to live, bringing the world population to more than 780. This increase in numbers is said to be due to a collaborative ‘trans-boundary’ conservation effort by governments from all three nations of the mountain gorilla’s range and a number of conservation organisations, including the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), which is formed by the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna and Flora International and WWF.

Mountain gorilla silverback

Silverback mountain gorillas lead stable family groups and defend their offspring and females by intimidating displays of charging and chest-beating.

Director of the IGCP, Eugene Rutagarama, said “Collectively, we cannot let down our guard on the conservation of these incredible animals. While mountain gorillas are physically strong, they are also incredibly vulnerable.”

Despite the recent increase in numbers, mountain gorillas are still very much under threat from poaching for bushmeat, illegal deforestation, disease, and human conflict, as illustrated by the results of a recent five-day patrol in the Virunga Massif which discovered and destroyed no less than 200 poachers’ snares. The mountain gorilla is rarely directly targeted by poachers, but they are very vulnerable to capture in snares set for other large mammals. However, nine mountain gorillas have been killed in four separate incidents during the last seven years.

Male mountain gorilla feeding on plant stalk

Mainly occurring within fairly well-protected national parks, the mountain gorilla is a key source of tourist revenue and securing its future is crucial for the well-being of communities in the region.

Overall, mountain gorillas are faring better than the world’s other great apes. “The mountain gorilla is the only one of the nine subspecies of African great apes experiencing a population increase. While we celebrate this collective achievement, we must also increase efforts to safeguard the remaining eight subspecies of great apes,” said David Greer, African Great Ape Coordinator with WWF.

Watch ARKive’s eastern gorilla slideshow to view 64 of the best eastern gorilla images.

To find out more about mountain gorillas and their conservation, see:

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author

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