Virunga Park oil hunt in DR Congo halted

A mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A quarter of the world's endangered mountain gorillas live in Virunga

The hunt for oil is to be halted in Africa's oldest national park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a UK-based oil firm has said.

Virunga National Park is a Unesco World Heritage site and home to more than 200 endangered mountain gorillas.

Soco International made the concession after the WWF filed a complaint that the company was violating good business practice guidelines.

The world conservation group has now agreed to drop its case against Soco.

In a joint statement, Soco and the WWF said they looked forward "to working responsibly with the Democratic Republic of Congo and its people to ensure that future development benefits both people and the environment".

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Media captionBattle to save Africa's oldest national park told in film

The 7,800 sq km (3,000 sq miles) Virunga park is one of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth, but it has suffered from the years of lawlessness and conflict between armed groups in the region.

More than 50,000 families also depend on the park's Lake Edward for jobs, food and drinking water, the WWF says.

The BBC's Maud Jullien in DR Congo says there has been growing international pressure on the London-listed oil firm in recent months.

In a joint editorial in April, South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, businessman Richard Branson and philanthropist Howard Buffett spoke out against Soco's activities in the park.

Park head shot

Last week, US-based Human Rights Watch called on the Congolese authorities to fully investigate recent threats and violence against park employees and local activists.

In April, the head of the park, Belgian national Emmanuel de Merode, was shot and seriously injured by armed men.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Emmanuel de Merode worked in an area where many armed groups and poachers operate
Image copyright AP
Image caption Many species live in the vast park which rangers battle to protect

The rights group said the government should examine whether such incidents were linked to the oil exploration after some criticised such plans.

Soco said it would complete its existing programme of work in Virunga within 30 days. According to the WWF, this includes seismic testing in Lake Edward.

The oil firm stated it was committed not to conduct any other operations in the park unless the UN cultural body and the Congolese government said it would not jeopardise Virunga's World Heritage status.

"Our agreement with WWF focuses the need for the DR Congo government and Unesco to also reach an agreement on the best way to combine development and the environment," Soco chairman Rui de Sousa said in a statement.

Marco Lambertini, WWF's director general, said the agreement was a "victory for our planet and for good practices in business".

"As in other African countries, with proper investment, this park can become a leading economic driver for its communities," the conservation group's DR Congo director, Raymond Lumbuenamo, said in a statement.

The park was the subject of recent documentary Virunga, which covered the struggle of Mr de Merode and his rangers to protect the park and its wildlife from militias and the threat of oil exploration.

The park includes forests, savannahs, swamps, active volcanoes and glaciated peaks.

A quarter of the world's estimated 880 mountain gorillas live there, as well the endangered okapi, which resembles a zebra but is more closely related to the giraffe.

Hippos, elephants, lions and rare bird species can also be found in the park, which was founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium.

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