In Africa, Oil Hunt Raises Concerns About Gorillas

The Democratic Republic of Congo has rejected a bid by the UK's Soco International to search for oil in the Virunga National Park. The famous park is home to rare mountain gorillas. Host Scott Simon talks with Matt Lewis, senior program officer for the World Wildlife Fund, who specializes in African species conservation.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Virunga National Park, Africa's oldest, is home to an estimated 200 of the world's 700 remaining wild Mountain Gorillas. The park straddles parts of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And, of course, was featured in Dian's Fossey's book, "Gorillas in the Mist."

But Virunga has been targeted by a British oil company, SOCO International, as an area for oil exploration. The Congolese government rejected their bid, but SOCO says it got the okay from Uganda to explore its side of the park.

We're joined now by Matt Lewis, senior program officer for the World Wildlife Fund, who specializes in African species conservation. Mr. Lewis, thanks for being with us.

Mr. MATT LEWIS (Senior Program Officer, World Wildlife Fund): Thank you, Scott. It's a pleasure to join you.

SIMON: And what do you think of the effects on the gorillas could be?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, the effects are known - are well-known actually of oil exploration and development on great apes and elephants. The study that has been conducted in Gabon showed that seismic exploration, which involves setting off a charge of dynamite buried underground.

Sound travels extremely long distances. An elephant can pick up the noise traveling through the ground, actually through its feet. And so the disturbance that was created from the seismic exploration was so great that the elephants left that area completely, and stayed away from that area for up to three months after that blast.

The impact is very similar for gorillas. You know, along with the exploration activities themselves come all of the infrastructure developments that happen. Sometimes the workers that are brought in rely on hunting in the forest to provide food. And so they can really, you know, eliminate the species by overhunting and over exploitation.

SIMON: Mr. Lewis, recognizing that you're with the World Wildlife Fund, what would you say to people in Uganda - or for that matter, Congo - who say look, the world is thirsting for oil. We're a poor country, there ought to be some way of extracting this oil from what we think of as the wilderness, that doesn't decimate the wild gorilla population.

Mr. LEWIS: Well, WWF is committed to find sustainable ways of development for the countries that we are partner with. But I think it's also vital that the countries realize the value of wildlife as a natural resource. There have been studies that estimate, for example, that one habituated mountain gorilla within its lifetime can bring in over $4 million in revenue from ecotourism.

And so if you add up the value that a healthy, thriving ecosystem full of mountain gorillas could bring, over its lifetime, I think it's much more of a long-sighted approach to conserve those areas, then it is to take the shortsighted approach to exploit them to make a quick buck.

SIMON: Matt Lewis, senior program officer for the World Wildlife Fund, in our studios. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. LEWIS: Thank you very much, Scott.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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