By Katy Migiro
NAIROBI, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Congolese wildlife ranger named winner of a prestigious award says he still fears for his life because of his campaign to stop oil exploration in the Virunga National Park and protect the habitats of the rare mountain gorillas that live there.
Rodrigue Katembo, one of six winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize on Monday, secretly filmed bribes being offered to allow British oil company Soco to drill in Virunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Two months after the film "Virunga" premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, public outrage led to Soco announcing the suspension of further exploration plans in the park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and refuge for endangered mountain gorillas.
"I fear for my life because Soco has money," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via Skype from San Francisco.
"We still fear Soco because they have never written to say they will stop their illegal activities in Virunga."
Soco has vigorously denied any link to attacks on its opponents, including Virunga's Belgian director, Emmanuel de Merode, who was shot and wounded in 2014 by unknown gunmen.
A spokesperson for Soco referred the Thomson Reuters Foundation to a statement on the company's website: "Following the end of our contractual obligations to the Government of the DRC, we have not sought to renew our licence."
The film gained a massive international audience through Netflix with support from celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Branson and Desmond Tutu.
More than 160 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty over the past 15 years, Katembo said, often at the hands of armed rebels and poachers.
The vast Democratic Republic of Congo has been plagued by conflict for decades and numerous armed groups operate in the east, where mining and oil companies want to access untapped resources.
Katembo was a child soldier at the age of 14 but escaped and went on to earn a master's degree and in 2003 became a ranger.
The government granted Soco an exploration licence in 2010 although Congolese law prohibits any extractive industries within its national parks.
Authorities in North Kivu continue to tell local people that the company will return, Katembo said.
Katembo was transferred to Upemba national park in 2015 because of death threats, which he took seriously after being arrested and tortured in 2013 for trying to stop Soco putting up communications antenna in Virunga.
Army soldiers and intelligence officials burned him with cigarettes and tied him to a tree and beat him, he said.
"They were saying: 'See, that is what will happen to anyone who opposes oil extraction in Virunga'," he said.
He said he was abused in jail every morning and evening for 17 days before being released without charge.
(Reporting by Katy Migiro @katymigiro; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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