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Endangered Gorillas Protected from Oil Drilling in African Park

Mountain Gorillas
Mountain gorillas. (Image credit: <a href="">Photodynamic</a> | <a href="">Shutterstock</a>)

A major oil and gas company has pledged to stop plumbing for oil in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, after the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and United States authorities pressured the firm to halt operations in the region.

Soco International Inc., an oil and gas production company headquartered in London, has agreed to cease development work in the area within 30 days, according to company representatives.

The African park — the oldest national park on the continent — is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is home to a diverse array of animals, including hippopotamuses, "critically endangered" mountain gorillas and several species of birds that flock to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to escape the harsh winter season in Siberia, according to the WWF. The 3,000-square-mile (7,800 kilometers) park was originally created in 1925 as a sanctuary to protect the region's gorillas. [In Images: 100 Most Threatened Species]

As part of the agreement, Soco also promised not to conduct any oil exploration in other World Heritage sites, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) officials said.

"The World Heritage Committee has always taken a very clear position that oil and mining exploration and exploitation are incompatible with the World Heritage status of natural sites on the World Heritage List," Kishore Rao, director of the World Heritage Centre, said in a statement. "It is encouraging that this position is now more and more accepted in the oil and mining industry and is also used as a criterion for several large investment banks."

Soco's decision came after the WWF submitted a petition that was signed by more than 750,000 people worldwide. The initiative also received support from the U.S. Department of State and members of Congress, led by Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif.

"But the fight is not over yet," Jan Vertefeuille, WWF's senior director of campaigns, said in a statement. "We urge the Democratic Republic of Congo to cancel all oil concessions in Virunga, and permanently protect its precious biodiversity and preserve the park's Lake Edward, which over 50,000 families depend on for jobs, food and drinking water."

The new agreement between Soco and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is considered a victory for conservationists, who have stressed the importance of protecting the area's wildlife and fragile ecosystems.

"Virunga has the potential to be worth more than US $1.1 billion annually if developed sustainably, rather than being exploited for possibly damaging oil extraction," Vertefeuille said.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a regular contributor to Live Science and, along with several other science publications. She is one of a handful of Canadian reporters who specializes in space reporting. Elizabeth has a Bachelor of Journalism, Science Concentration at Carleton University (Canada) and an M.Sc. Space Studies (distance) at the University of North Dakota. Elizabeth became a full-time freelancer after earning her M.Sc. in 2012. She reported on three space shuttle launches in person and once spent two weeks in an isolated Utah facility pretending to be a Martian.