The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported Monday that staff members have been telephoned with death threats connected to the organization’s opposition to oil development in Virunga National Park.
According to a WWF release, anonymous callers threatened the safety of two employees stationed in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), near the southern tip of the park. The threats are the latest escalation of tensions since the attempted murder of Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s Chief Warden.
In April, de Merode was shot several times in the legs and stomach while driving alone in a park vehicle between Goma and Rumangabo, DRC. The bullets missed de Merode’s vital organs, and he currently is in Nairobi, where he is recovering from wounds suffered in the ambush.
The callers who threatened the employees may have connections to attempted assassination. According to a WWF spokesperson, the callers “said that they had missed killing de Merode, but would not miss WWF’s employee.”
Tensions in Virunga are running high, thanks to a controversial oil exploration scheme.
In 2010, the DRC government granted the UK-based oil company Soco International PLC a permit to explore for oil in the park. Now, Soco is beginning a six-week seismic test in Lake Edward that, if successful, would lay the groundwork for drilling.
At the same time, the company is currently being investigated for conducting or abetting intimidation, threats, and the unlawful detention of local activists in and around the park.
The possibility of drilling in Virunga, which is the continent’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has raised strong opposition from environmental NGOs as well as the governments of the UK, Belgium, and Germany. Leading voices from around the world, including anti-Apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu, businessman Richard Branson, and philanthropist Howard Buffett have also spoken out against fossil fuel development in Virunga.
The 7,800 square kilometer park contains roughly one-quarter of the world’s 800 remaining mountain gorillas that face displacement at the hands of oil operations. These animals already face grave risks from poachers and local militias. According to WWF, oil development could also put 50,000 families—who depend on the park for water and jobs—at risk.
Oil production in the area could also inflame simmering tensions in the region. For nearly all of the last half century, Virunga has been subject to a series of crises—from large-scale poaching to an influx of Rwandan refugees that seriously damaged the park’s ecosystems, to occupation by armed militants.
Speaking to the Guardian, WWF’s DRC country director, Raymond Lumbuenamo, said:
The security situation in the park is already bad. The UN is involved with fighting units and the M23 rebel force is inside the park. Oil would be a curse. It always increases conflict. It would attract human sabotage. The park might become like the Niger delta. Developing Virunga for oil will not make anything better. When you take part of the land [for oil] you put more pressure on the rest.
Virunga is already under plenty of pressure. Since 2004, 150 of the park’s 680 rangers have been killed in the line of duty. This frightening trend reflects the sharp rise in environmental killings as competition for limited resources continues to grow around the world.