Africa's oldest national park, which could be worth a billion dollars a year if developed sustainably, is under threat from oil exploration, campaigners have warned.
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), made up of lakes, savannah, forests, volcanoes and home to the critically endangered mountain gorilla, could be worth £700 million annually, a report by charity WWF said.
The World Heritage site has the potential to generate 45,000 jobs through investments in the fishing industry, hydropower schemes and eco-tourism, which in neighbouring Rwanda is booming.
But 85% of the park has been allocated to oil concessions, with UK-based Soco International planning exploration with an aerial survey of Lake Edward and the surrounding savannah, despite calls by Unesco World Heritage Committee for oil companies not to explore in such sites.
Soco International's licence area does not include the mountainous sector of the park which is home to the mountain gorillas, and the company has stated it will never seek to have operations in the gorilla habitat, the Virunga volcanoes or rainforest.
However, WWF has warned oil development could damage wildlife, and lead to oil spills, pipeline leaks and gas flaring which could contaminate air, water and soil in the local environment. It could also have broader knock-on effects for the region.
A report by the environmental group said seismic surveys and exploration leads to clearance of natural vegetation and development of illegal settlements, fragmenting habitat for species such as elephants and providing access to poachers and rebels who are active in the North Kivu area. Development of oil resources in an area which is prone to conflict and has a lack of governance makes pollution-free extraction "extremely difficult", and rebel activity could make clearing up spills hard, the report warns.
But sustainable development in the region could see a trebling of the fishing industry in Lake Edward, which is currently targeted for exploration. The industry provides employment for 27,000 people and is worth an estimated £20 million a year, a figure which could reach £60 million, the report said.
Electricity production from hydropower could double, providing a total of 10,000 jobs and be worth £6.5 million annually, the analysis by independent consultants Dalberg Global Development Advisors said. And while the park is closed to tourists due to instability, efforts to end conflict, secure the park and protect its hundreds of species of plants and animals could see tourism take off in the longer term and bring in £150 million a year.
Raymond Lumbuenamo, country director for WWF-Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), said Virunga was a precious asset which could have value for generations if it was kept as a conservation area. "Once you turn it into an oil field you sell it once and it's gone for good, it's going to get destroyed, polluted, the beauty of it will go to waste," he warned.