KAMPALA, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Uganda should not license an oil exploration block close to neighbouring Congo's Virunga National Park because drilling would harm the park's ecosystem, 60 local and international environmental groups said on Thursday.
The east African country of Uganda discovered crude reserves in its Albertine rift basin near its border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2006.
In its latest licensing round, the first to be conducted competitively, six blocks covering about 3,000 square kilometres (1160 square miles) are expected to be handed out early this year.
Sixteen oil firms are competing for the blocks, including Britain's Tullow, which already operates in Uganda alongside France's Total and China's CNOOC.
But oil exploration in Ngaji, one of the six blocks, "could have a devastating impact on the (Virunga) UNESCO World Heritage Site," the environmental groups said in a statement.
Signatories included London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness and Greenpeace, an environmental body with offices in more than 40 countries.
Ngaji extends over Lake Edward, which straddles Uganda's border with DRC and forms part of the Virunga, Africa's oldest and most bio-diverse national park. It's also home to endangered mountain gorillas.
British petroleum firm Soco International conducted seismic testing on a block in Virunga in 2014, drawing protests from environmentalists.
The firm later suspended exploration in the area and said in November last year that it no longer owns the block.
"Drilling for oil in Lake Edward may have a devastating impact on both Virunga and the local people and wildlife in Uganda," George Boden, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, said in the statement.
"The governments of Uganda and Congo need to act urgently to stop oil exploration in the entire lake for good."
The exploration area also covers a part of the 1,978 square kilometre Queen Elizabeth National Park, a top Ugandan tourist destination teeming with buffalos, lions, elephants and other prized game.
Bukenya-Matovu Yusuf, spokesperson for Uganda's energy ministry, said environmentalists' concerns were unjustified.
"How about UK drilling in the North Sea or offshore drilling all over the world ... no one is talking about endangering marine life there," he said.
"The problem is not drilling in a national park or lake but doing it in a responsible and sensitive manner and we're experts in that," he said.
Large parts of the Ugandan side of the Albertine area extend over national parks and game reserves, including Murchison Falls. The government has previously handed out drilling licences in those areas despite protests from environmentalists.
(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Drazen Jorgic and Katharine Houreld)