About 200 mountain gorillas now live in central Africa's Virunga National Park, making it home to nearly a quarter of the entire species. But the park may also be home to deep deposits of oil, once again stirring concern for its hard-luck enclave of endangered apes.

While U.K.-based Soco International is still in the early stages of looking for that oil, its interest is already mobilizing a coalition of conservationists, led by the World Wildlife Fund. Virunga is a haven for gorillas and 3,000 other animal species, but it has also been racked by decades of armed conflict and poaching. More than 150 rangers have died in the line of duty there since 1996, and rebel forces even took over park offices in 2008. Yet rangers have helped gorillas expand despite the violence, and tourism has returned amid lulls in fighting (although Virunga is currently closed to visitors due to renewed conflict).

The WWF pounced on Soco's plan this week, filing a formal complaint with the U.K. government that calls it aviolation of guidelines set by the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The WWF also unveiled a public-awareness campaign, "Draw the Line," that includes an online petition to "keep oil exploration out of Virunga." More than 400,000 people signed the petition in its first four days.

"Soco's operations are putting Virunga's people, animals and habitats at risk," Lasse Gustavsson of WWF International said in a statement on Monday. "The only way for Soco to come into compliance with the OECD guidelines is for the company to end all exploration in Virunga for good. We urge the company to stop its activities immediately."

Soco was quick to respond, insisting in its own press release Monday that it's not violating OECD guidelines — but also noting they're voluntary, suggesting it can ignore them as long as it follows local laws in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Virunga is located.

"Soco would like to make it clear that all alleged breaches of the voluntary guidelines raised are absolutely ill-founded, tendentious and not supported by the facts," the company says in its statement. It adds, however, that "OECD guidelines state that abiding by domestic law is the first obligation of enterprises, and the guidelines are not a substitute [for] ... domestic law and regulation. Soco would like to make it clear that its operations abide by all the laws and regulations set out by the government of the DRC."

Virunga rangers

Two Congolese Conservation Rangers patrol Virunga National Park. (Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Conservationists aren't alone in their disapproval, though. "The U.K. opposes oil exploration within Virunga National Park, a World Heritage site listed by UNESCO as being 'in danger,'" a spokesman for the U.K. government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in September 2012. "We urge any company involved, and the government of DR Congo, to respect the international conventions to which it is a signatory."

Virunga's current security issues could hinder oil exploration anyway, but the UNESCO World Heritage Committee issued a report earlier this year expressing concern about both. Militias and poachers are threatening the fragile stability of recent years, the report warned, while oil prospecting could lead to redrawn park boundaries and erode the natural mystique that lures tourists in peacetime. "[D]elisting of a part of the property would have an irreversible and serious impact on its outstanding universal value," UNESCO concluded, "and could contribute to its removal from the World Heritage List."

The report also called for all Virunga oil permits to be canceled, and asked two companies — Britain's Soco and France's Total — to refrain from exploring there, citing similar commitments from Shell Oil and the International Council on Mining and Metals. Total has since agreed to UNESCO's request, leaving Soco as the last oil company standing in Virunga. Soco executives say their interests don't overlap with mountain gorilla habitat, but wildlife experts and park rangers disagree, according to the Guardian.

Soco does have some local support, however, since much of the region's embattled population is eager for an economic boost. The DRC hopes Virunga exploration could raise its oil revenues, Reuters reports, and many residents are frustrated with the tourism industry's fits and starts amid sporadic warfare. "We've been living in misery for a long time," the president of a local civil group tells Reuters. "Look at tourism. It has done nothing to help the population. If we do have oil, that would be a real chance."

Virunga ranger with gorilla

A Virunga warden plays with an orphaned mountain gorilla in 2012. (Photo: Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images)

But public opinion on the issue is mixed, according to a reverend from nearby Goma. "On one side they want these operations because they bring economic opportunities," he tells Reuters, "but on the other there is the damage it can bring." UNESCO forbids oil drilling at World Heritage sites, for example, and no one is sure how such activity would affect critically endangered mountain gorillas. The WWF has accused Soco of failing to disclose information about pollution, habitat loss and poaching from its own impact assessment.

"We've seen how oil development can have serious negative impacts on wildlife, habitats and people in many places," the WWF says on its Draw the Line website. "From road-building, pipeline-laying, and of course the potential oil spills and pollution of land and water. We also know there are much safer, more sustainable, financially viable alternatives — including potentially lucrative eco-tourism and hydropower."

Ongoing violence and poaching are still the greatest threats to park wildlife, and any talk of tourism is likely moot until security is restored and visitors can safely travel. But Soco's critics say oil would be a short-term balm for DRC at best, possibly at the expense of long-term revenue and prestige from eco-tourism. A WWF-commissioned study estimates Virunga could contribute $49 million annually to the DRC economy, and possibly as much as $1.1 billion if a robust tourism industry can take root.

Even now, as armed militias operate in the park, gorillas are still proving their economic benefits. "[W]e have even had reports of rebel groups in the park no longer poaching, but making money pretending to be authorized tour operators," WWF's Drew McVey tells the Guardian. "Ironically, that is a sign of how important these big mammals are."

For a closer look at Virunga, check out this video by the Frankfurt Zoological Society:

Related gorilla stories on MNN:

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Can mountain gorillas coexist with oil rigs?
A U.K. company wants to search for oil under Virunga, Africa's oldest national park and a rare refuge for endangered mountain gorillas.