Virunga mountain gorillas

The Bageni family of mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park on Aug. 6, 2013. (Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

U.K. oil giant SOCO International will end its controversial oil exploration in Africa's Virunga National Park, part of a deal unveiled Wednesday supporters call "a game-changing victory for conservation."

The agreement was revealed in a joint statement by SOCO and the World Wildlife Fund, which has led a lengthy campaign to stop SOCO's oil exploration in Virunga and prevent the company from drilling there. Not only will SOCO back off Virunga, the oldest national park in Africa, but it has also agreed to stay out of all other UNESCO World Heritage sites, according to the announcement.

"[This] sends a strong message that World Heritage Sites and other fragile natural areas must be off-limits to development," WWF campaign director Jan Vertefeuille says in a statement about the deal. "Virunga has the potential to be worth more than $1.1 billion annually if developed sustainably, rather than being exploited for possibly damaging oil extraction."

Covering nearly 2 million acres of wilderness in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Virunga is home to about 200 of the planet's 800 remaining mountain gorillas. It also houses a menagerie of other rare African wildlife, including lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants and okapi. But the park has been plagued by armed conflict and poaching in recent decades, and conservationists have grown worried a petroleum rush could be the last straw for some of its already-endangered residents.

Virunga National Park

Morning mist in the forests around Virunga National Park. (Photo: Heather Thorkelson/Flickr)

SOCO had drawn widespread criticism for its plans in Virunga, including from UNESCO, the U.K. government and prominent figures like Richard Branson, Howard G. Buffett and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. More than 700,000 people also signed petitions from conservation groups seeking a halt to the exploration. Not only could oil development threaten habitat and add stress for mountain gorillas, according to critics, but it could worsen rivalries among local militias and pollute Lake Edward, an important source of food, water and jobs for roughly 50,000 families in the region.

In exchange for SOCO's concessions, the WWF agreed to drop a complaint to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that the company is violating OECD business guidelines. SOCO will have 30 days to finish its existing work in Virunga, after which it pledges "not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status."

UNESCO has warned Virunga's World Heritage status is "in danger," citing violence and poaching as well as oil. The WWF-SOCO deal addresses that danger, but it's no panacea for Virunga, which has absorbed thousands of refugees and endured frequent fighting over the past two decades. More than 150 park rangers have died in the line of duty since 1996, and park director Emmanuel de Merode was shot four times during a failed assassination in April. Merode is working on a new sustainable development plan, Virunga Alliance, that would power homes with hydroelectricity and curb local reliance on limited forest resources. With less risk of conflict or oil rigs, the WWF says hydropower, fishing and eco-tourism could make Virunga more valuable for the DRC over time.

"SOCO is pleased that we were able to work together with WWF to hopefully find a way to jointly improve conditions in Virunga National Park and for its inhabitants," deputy CEO Roger Cagle says in a press release the company issued about its decision.

Other oil giants have made pledges similar to SOCO's — Shell agreed in 2003 not to drill in World Heritage sites, for example, and the French oil firm Total scrapped its plans to drill in Virunga last year. But while the SOCO deal is a rare cause for celebration among conservationists, Vertefeuille points out the DRC government could still let someone else drill for oil in Virunga.

"Today's pledge ... is a monumental win for conservation and for the people who depend on the park," Vertefeuille says. "But the fight is not over yet. We urge the Democratic Republic of Congo to cancel all oil concessions in Virunga, and permanently protect its precious biodiversity."

Russell McLendon is science editor at MNN. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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