Congo approves oil drilling in UNESCO World Heritage Sites that home endangered gorillas

A band of mountain gorillas rest in a clearing in Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has decided to open up parts of two protected national parks, home to endangered species such as mountain gorillas, to oil drilling.

The proposals to allow oil exploration in Virunga and Salonga National Parks were met with fierce opposition from environmental activists, who say drilling would place wildlife at risk.

They also fear it will release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Virunga sits on the forest-cloaked volcanoes of central Africa and is home to over half the global population of mountain gorillas.

British company Soco International performed seismic testing at the site – which is Africa’s oldest national park – but let its licence lapse in 2015.

Virunga decided to close its gates to visitors until 2019, last month after the death of a ranger and the kidnapping of two British tourists.

Salonga covers 33,350 sq km (12,877 sq miles) of the Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest rainforest, and contains bonobos, forest elephants, dwarf chimpanzees and Congo peacocks.

The government has defended its right to authorise drilling anywhere in the country and said it was mindful of protecting animals and plants in the two UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The cabinet said it had approved the establishment of commissions charged with preparing plans to declassify sections of the parks, including 1,720 sq km (664 sq miles), or 21.5 per cent, of eastern Congo’s Virunga.