By Sarah Khan
February 09, 2016
An orphaned mountain gorilla at the Senkwekwe Center
An orphaned mountain gorilla at the Senkwekwe Center, home to the only three mountain gorillas currently living in captivity.
| Credit: Tom Parker

Environmental groups and NGOs have teamed up to try and prevent new oil-drilling contracts being awarded in areas adjacent to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo—a move campaigners say could cause ‘irreparable damage’ to the fragile wildlife reserve.

The Virunga mountain range, which spans Virunga National Park, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, is home to one of the world’s last remaining mountain gorilla communities.

Last summer, T+L writer Sophy Roberts reported on her visit to Virunga National Park in her feature Forces of Nature, which shed light on efforts to preserve its gorilla population. She described the tensions in a region rich in gold, diamonds, and what are thought to be vast untapped oil reserves—but also rife with problems borne out of decades of ethnic conflict and political instability.

In November, the Ugandan government announced it was accepting bids for six new oil contracts in protected areas in and around the mountain range. One contract would allow drilling in Lake Edward, which lies at the heart of Virunga National Park’s vulnerable ecosystem, but falls across the border of the DRC and Uganda.

Efforts to prevent drilling are being spearheaded by human and environmental right group Global Witness, whose Jean-Luc Blakey said, “Tourism is a big industry in Uganda, and drilling for oil in Lake Edward could seriously jeopardize that. It’s economically and ecologically questionable.”

The move came as positive momentum has been building around conservation efforts in the DRC. In November, British oil company SOCO, which had been conducting seismic tests within Virunga National Park, opted out of their license for further exploration—likely due to the outrage caused in response to the 2014 Leonardo DiCaprio-produced documentary, Virunga. In December, park director Emmanuel de Merode unveiled Matebe Hydroelectric Plant, which is set to become a major source of clean energy and job creation in the region.

For travelers interested in visiting Virunga’s mountain gorillas, there are now several good places to stay in and around the park. In addition to Mikeno Lodge (where Roberts stayed on her visit) and Bukima Tented Camp (which reopened in 2014), Tchegera Island Camp, on the northern shore of Lake Kivu, debuted in August.

Sarah Khan lives in Cape Town and covers South Africa for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.