Gorilla family in Virunga National Park
May 31, 2013
Congo: First success for endangered mountain gorillas
There is new hope for the Virunga National Park in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this world heritage, the government has opened five areas for oil exploration. Due to worldwide protests of environmentalists, the oil company TOTAL pulled out of the exploration project.
“The start of oil production would mean the end of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and also the end of our gorillas.” This concern was expressed in an interview with Rainforest Rescue in December 2012 by Ephrem Balole, member of the Virunga National Park administration. Balole came to Europe in order to draw attention to the impending natural crisis in his country which has been shaken by civil wars.
The dense rainforest of Virunga in the eastern part of the Congo, close to the border of Rwanda, is home to various rare animal species. Since 1925, it has been Africa’s oldest national park. It is also home to 380 of the endangered mountain gorillas.
The park management, together with the inhabitants of the region are trying to fight the government’s plans to grant concessions for oil production.
At the end of 2011, the British oil company SOCO for example, received an oil production licence for several oil blocks in the eastern part of the country. Until then, oil production was prohibited in the Congo’s sensitive rainforest. 60 % of Block 5 of the SOCO-licence is situated in the middle of the Virunga National Park. Ephrem Balole says: “The Company has received permission to start exploration in the park by presidential decree. However, the exploitation of natural resources within the park is prohibited by law.”
In December 2012, more than 65.000 people signed Rainforest Rescue’s call for an immediate stop of oil production activities in the Virunga National Park:
In addition to that, we were able to donate 15.000 Euro to the park’s management – to support the difficult job of the rangers to protect the gorillas.
The rainforest and its inhabitants however, are not safe yet – until today the SOCO-company did not pull out of the project. Therefore, the park-rangers and the inhabitants need our help – please help to support them with a donation:
Virunga ranger with Gorilla baby
Jan 4, 2013
Virunga NP: Interview with park management
380 of the rare mountain gorillas live in Virunga National Park in large family groups. Now Britain’s SOCO International plc wants to drill for oil in the park. This would be the end of the park and of the gorillas. Rainforest Rescue interviewed Ephrem Balole from the park management of Virunga
Interview was realized by Rainforest Rescue* during the visit of Ephrem Balole in Hamburg on 17. Dezember 2012.
Balole: I am Ephrem Balole, 45 years old and I works in the Virunga National Park as a planning officer and I supervize logistic support. So, i'm not a Ranger, but I work in the logistic departement to help for ranger employment and so I know whats is ongoing on the ground.
Rainforest Rescue: Ephrem Balole, could you please report us under what kind of extraordinary conditions the rangers in the National Park have to work – especially in the context of Civil War?
Balole: Yes, it has been difficult to work in the context of war. We were expecting to realize 1,5 million dollars from tourism and everything was going well until early April when we were obliged to stop tourism because we could not provide security for visitors. So we changed into emergency situation. When the rebels occupied the gorilla sector, we could not access to it for the last eight months, not even the rangers. It was too dangerous. Because of the bombings we feared that the gorillas could suffer a collateral damage but in early December, when we received the authorization of the rebel s to come back to the gorilla sector, we found five of the six gorilla groups with five new babies. We told clearly to the rebels and the soldiers that we are not involved in their war business. We have our work to protect the Virunga National park, which is a World Heritage Site.
Rainforest Rescue: Could you please describe the current situation of illegal hunting in the Virunga N.P. And what does the park management do against poaching?
Balole: The poaching is conducted by a huge network. There is a mafia network to sell this bushmeat. The poaching of elefants is too spread in all Africa. In Virunga National Park we have three main populations of elephants. To protect these populations we committed three teams of rangers, whose work is to monitor the elephant populations. We have an inteligency and when we conduct a poachers place, where poachers hide – we do it.
Rainforest Rescue: Africa is one of the hot spots of illegal logging. What are the effects of illegal logging on Virunga NP?
Balole: We don't experience illegal threat of loggers but logging occurs far from the park in non-protected areas. But what hits Virunga is the illegal threat of charcoal, which can be used as domestic fuel. That is the main problem for us because the big city of Goma, with one million inhabitants, does not have enough electricity. So the housholds have no energy. For domestic cooking the main fuel used is charcoal. What we are planning now is hydroelectricity because it can slow down the demand and then there will be no incentives to destroy the forests. And it's possible because near Virunga National Park we have waterfalls. We have a pilot project of a dam construction where we channel the water until we have the correct height and then we turbine the water and the water goes back to the river. So it's not a big construction and we don't have a huge impact on the ecosystem. We destroy nothing.
Rainforest Rescue: The Virunga NP is also threatened by oil-production projects, planned by the British company SOCO. What is the current situation?
Balole: The oil company got the authorization from the presidential decree to conduct some research of oil in the area. And fortunately there is a conservation law that prohibits extractive activity in the park. Especially Soco oil, that is owning Bloc 5 in Virunga National Park, is conducting aereal search outside the park – this is not illegal. But we are sure that this will not be suffisant to know if there is oil and in which quantity. They might need to conduct some research on the ground. That would be illegal.
Rainforest Rescue: So the oil production represents a big threat for the park?
Rainforest Rescue: Some years ago critics pointed out that the park management is not work in favour of local communities that live in the Virunga region. Some rangers even expelled people from the National Park. What is your opinion on that?
Balole: In fact, Virunga National Park shares 30 percent of the revenues with the community. With these 30 percent we recently built nine schools, a healthcare center and a network of water supply. And now we have a hydrodam. These are clear examples of our relationship with the community. We also need to implement local people livelihood in this area because the local people are really poor and the wildlife conservation can be a leverage factor of their development. We need to settle a development scheme through the park. If the park is peaceful we can set up tourism – we have a huge potential. And in the tourism we need food, we need accomodation, transportation and a huge network linkage in the community. We have the potential but we have problems to implement all this on the ground.
Rainforest Rescue: Ephrem Balole, thank you very much for your time and the interesting interview!
* Interview was realized by David Vollrath and Jenna Kulp.