Sir David Attenborough facing new battle to save the gorillas

An oil company's alleged interest in primates' habitat sparks outrage

Jamie Merrill
Sunday 02 November 2014 01:00
Sir David Attenborough and gorillas in Rwanda, 1979
Sir David Attenborough and gorillas in Rwanda, 1979

It is more than 35 years since Sir David Attenborough was memorably prodded, poked and groomed by rare African mountain gorillas in front of television cameras. Now the 88-year-old naturalist is again fighting to save the endangered primates.

Yesterday, he launched a scathing attack on a British firm with a history of oil exploration in the gorillas' fragile habitat. Sir David, whose now famous scene from the Life on Earth series featured a family of mountain gorillas, called for Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the last bastions of the mountain gorilla, to be protected from oil exploration by SOCO International. The firm, which is registered on the London Stock Exchange, had been conducting studies on whether it is feasible to drill for oil at Lake Edward, on the border of the park and neighbouring Rwanda.

The region was made famous by zoologist Dian Fossey and the book and film about her, Gorillas in the Mist, and was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.

The naturalist's intervention will put pressure on the firm, which has faced fierce opposition to its plans from conservationists. The firm said last night that it no longer had operations in the area.

Sir David told The Independent on Sunday "Areas like Virunga are of great scientific and natural value to the whole world … To encroach upon them, to exploit them for temporary gain totally contradicts the ideals underpinning the protection of such sites."

The 790,000-hectare park in eastern Congo is one of the world's richest pockets of biodiversity, but its location means it has been battled over by rival militia groups, including the notorious M23 rebel force.

Sir David added: "It would be extremely worrying if Virunga were to be exploited for oil. Not only would it threaten a park that is home to a vast range of wildlife, but it would also send a worrying signal for the future of other world heritage sites." His intervention comes only days before an award-winning documentary on the park, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, is released.

The film, Virunga, charts the efforts by wildlife rangers to protect the park, which includes swamps, forests and the Rwenzori mountain range and is also home to 20,000 hippopotamuses and dozens of rare bird species as well as the gorillas.

In September, Global Witness, an NGO, issued a report detailing criticisms of contractors working for the oil company. SOCO recently halted exploration in the park, stressing it respects diversity and local views. It says it "does not condone, partake in or tolerate any corrupt or illegal activity". A spokesman said that it had not been provided with evidence to support the NGO's claims.

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