Wildlife conservationists warn that plans by a British energy company to drill for oil in a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) could threaten the local population of mountain gorillas, spread pollution and environmental damage and also worsen the ethnic conflicts in the region.

The Virunga National Park, which is located in northeastern corner of DRC, straddling the border with Uganda, is home to about 200 mountain gorillas, roughly one-fourth of the global total for the endangered species. The park, founded by King Albert 1 of Belgium in 1925, also features a smaller population of eastern lowland gorillas. Virunga, the oldest national park in Africa and a World Heritage Site, also hosts more than 3,000 different types of animals. It is also rich in lakes, forests, savannah, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, and even active volcanoes.

But this is where UK-based SOCO International plc (LON:SIA), plans to explore for oil, raising the fears of conservation groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) "Once you turn [Virunga] into an oil field…  it's gone for good,” said Raymond Lumbuenamo, country director for WWF-DRC, according to BBC. “It's going to get destroyed, polluted -- the beauty of it will go to waste." The Virunga park website noted that poaching and wars have already killed many mountain gorillas, while illegal charcoal production has destroyed much of their habitat. Lumbuenamo also told Bloomberg: “Oil extraction here could have devastating consequences for local communities that rely on Virunga for fish, drinking water and their other needs.”

In response to WWF’s entreaties, SOCO said it is at presently only “evaluating” its options in Virunga and that its activities would not threaten the fauna and flora in the park. SOCO, which is conducting aerial surveys of its oil concessions in Virunga, insisted that  “responsibly conducted commercial activities can provide important measures of stability by significantly enhancing local and regional economies, thereby raising living standards for local communities.” Interestingly, Total (NYSE: TOT), the French oil giant, which also owns an oil concession in the park, has already stated it will not participate in any activities in Virunga, leaving SOCO as the sole oil player.

As an alternative, WWF suggested that alternate sustainable activities like hydropower generation, fishing and ecotourism should be encouraged rather than oil exploration. WWF issued a report claiming that such economic activities (excluding crude oil production) in Virunga could still generate $1.1 billion in annual revenues and about 45,000 permanent jobs through tourism, fisheries and investments in hydropower.

Tourism to Virunga is already been suspended due to renewed violence between warring ethnic and paramilitary groups.