Can Oil & Wildlife Mix

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Background: The multinational oil company Shell first struck oil in Gabon, Central Africa, in 1963. In 1967 it began pumping from onshore oilfields that sit plum in the middle of pristine rainforest. This is a stunning location bordered by two national parks where you might assume that that oil exploitation has been detrimental for wildlife. But an independent study by the Smithsonian Institution, one of the world’s foremost scientific bodies has yielded some surprising results…

Wild at Heart

I saw my first elephant pretty well as soon as I touched down at Gamba Airport – on a runway that is a strip of red earth slicing through the forest. A handsome male, with the straight tannin-stained tusks typical of the African forest variety, he emerged from the trees and began to career around the grounds

A couple of officials rushed to shoo him away but moments later the roar of an incoming airplane packed with oilmen did the job. As the de Havilland descended, its propellers whirling, the elephant trumpeted and fled into the forest.

The Gamba Complex of Protected Areas in southwest Gabon is the location of the oil fields of the global energy and petrochemical group Shell. These have been operating for over 40 years and during the 1990s the largest onshore field, Rabi, churned out two-thirds of Gabon’s oil – a commodity that accounts for more than 40 per cent of GDP. Production has dropped, but these fields are still delivering up to 60,000 barrels a day of high-grade crude.

Given the scale of this industrial activity, it is hard to imagine a more sensitive environmental location. The 11,320-square-kilometre complex from where the oil is drilled and pumped to the Gamba terminal with its thundering turbines, colossal holding tanks and maze of silver pipes is one of the most biodiversity-rich places on earth. This mosaic of rainforests, savannahs, mangrove swamps, lagoons, lakes, beaches and dunes sits sandwiched between two of Gabon’s most beautiful national parks, Loango and Moukalaba-Doudou.

Immense Tropical Forest Block

The Republic of Gabon lies on the central west coast of Africa, traversed by the equator and bordered by Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon to the north and the Republic of Congo to the east and south, with 885 km of Atlantic Ocean coastline to the west. Its surface area is roughly the size of Italy. Central Africa’s tropical moist forests cover 1.8 million square km, the second largest contiguous block in the world after the Amazon, and Gabon harbours an important part of that block, with roughly 80 per cent of the country covered by tropical forest.

The Gamba area is one of the most isolated in Gabon –  no roads link it to the rest of the country and access is only possible by air or by sea. It means that this region is one of the most pristine in the country.

As soon as they land in Gamba, Shell employees new to Gabon receive a crash course on the realities of their rainforest surroundings. Biologist Olivier Pauwels is showing newcomers examples of venomous snakes when I arrive at Yenzi, Shell’s residential camp that is home to 400 high-level personnel and is situated on the forest edge next to a lagoon.

Their neighbours include the Gabon Viper, the most poisonous snake in the world, but fortunately one that is rarely encountered. Theirs is a stunning setting with plenty of opportunities to see wildlife close up, such as crocodiles, hippos, lizards and monkeys, and, when I visit, elephants are everywhere.

“Right now it is the mango season,” explains Mr Pauwels. “The elephants are coming out of forests and into the camp to eat the mangoes that have fallen from our trees.” Hunting pressure outside the complex – illegal in Gabon but not properly enforced – is also encouraging them to enter the camp. “They feel safe here,” he says.

Never approach an elephant, leave food out on terraces, attempt flash photography or walk about camp after dusk, Mr Pauwels warns the Shell employees. “Impress this especially on your kids. They won’t be able to outrun an elephant,” he says.

Breaking Scientific Ground

In 2001, conscious of its responsibility given the unique location of its activities in Gabon, Shell broke new ground by establishing an industry-research partnership with the Smithsonian Institution in the United States, an international leader in scientific exploration.

Under the partnership, the Shell Foundation provided a $4-million grant for scientists to complete the first in-depth study of Central African rainforest biodiversity across the Gamba Complex – the Smithsonian Institution’s Monitoring and Assesment of Biodiversity Programme.

Shell Gabon provided logistical assistance and the project won the full support of the Gabonese government. This was different however from the usual contractual relationship between industry and scientific consultant. From the outset, all parties agreed to respect the scientific independence of the Smithsonian Institution and to commit to full transparency with respect to its findings.

For the Smithsonian Institution, the project represented two opportunities. First, it offered the chance to delve scientifically into an unexplored environment. Secondly, it gave it the chance to provide information to a company which appeared to want to use it responsibly to further its land management practices.

As head of the Smithsonian programme, Olivier Pauwels was excited at the prospect of working in such virgin territory, but admits he was initially sceptical. “I had a very bad impression of the oil industry when I was first told we would be doing an ecological survey on an oilfield in Gabon,” he says.

Five years later, however, the researchers’ findings were to stun the scientific community and turn the tables on everyone’s expectations as to the conflict between oil exploitation and conservation.

Biodiversity Breakthrough

When the project started, the first goal was to discover the extent of the biodiversity in the Gamba Complex. “There were rumours of big populations of gorillas and hippos, but nothing was recorded,” says Mr Pauwels.

Making a taxonomic inventory of the area’s fauna and flora was a vast exercise, involving expeditions by a team of 29 scientists and 32 technical staff from various disciplines and agencies – including ornithologists, botanists, herpetologists, entomologists and primatologists – who flew in from around the globe from other world-class research institutions.

To serve as a scientific base and repository for the natural history reference collections for the country, a laboratory was established at Gamba in disused Shell buildings. Today, the laboratory houses a vast collection of flora and fauna and is used for research, training and environmental education.

On completion of their task, the scientists recorded almost 3,000 species in the Gamba Complex, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, orchids and trees never seen before.

Their inventory included 152 species of reptiles and amphibians, including the extremely rare giant red skink and other charismatic creatures such as the forest screeching frog, the warty toad and the corpulent stiletto snake.

There were more than 100 fish species, including seven types of electric fish – two undescribed; 493 bird species; and 110 mammal species, among them leopards, western lowland gorillas, tree pangolins, African golden cats and eight species of duiker.

The scientists examined 440,000 arthropods and recorded more than 1,000 species ranging from ants, grasshoppers, beetles and spiders to scorpions, moths and bees, resulting in the largest invertebrate reference collection in Central Africa.

Dizzying Array of Species

This was the most taxonomically-inclusive study to be carried out in Gabon but the biggest surprise was not the dazzling breadth of the area’s biodiversity but where it was found.

The greatest concentration of wildlife was recorded not in the two national parks but around Shell’s own oil fields. In fact, among the teeming forests and wetlands in the Rabi oil field, the Smithonian observed the highest number of reptile species ever recorded in Gabon, and the country’s second richest site for amphibians.

The reason for this turned out to be the years of isolation imposed on the area by Shell. The field covers a 17km by 8km block, intensively developed by platforms, infrastructure, and laterite roads but the company’s strict operating and security standards at Rabi control public access, land clearing, road construction and site restoration, ensures that no outsiders are allowed in, speed limits of between 40kmph and 60kmph are enforced and night traffic is banned.

It has been great news for the wildlife. Here elephants are abundant and monkeys can be spotted flying through the trees almost everywhere you look. “The Rabi oil field is so well protected that the density is exceptional,” says Mr Pauwels. “If you want to see wildlife, Rabi is the place! You will see even more than in the neighbouring national parks.”

“Our studies show that animals inside the Shell-patrolled area take much longer to flee then those outside, which are threatened by poachers. Elephants in the oil concession walk next to you while you are driving along. But if you drive out of the oil concession, it is more difficult to see them,” says Dr Alfonso Alonso, director for conservation and development for the Smithsonian Institution’s programme. “Certain large mammals have benefited enormously from an oil-management process that has reduced human hunting pressure on them.”

The scientists’ work proved so useful that Shell Gabon is continuing to fund studies and the development of a biodiversity action plan. The relationship, says Mr Pauwels, has developed far further than he initially expected, with the Smithsonian scientists now having moved beyond an observatory role to a collaboratory one. “We are working on developing recommendation sheets on how to decrease the impact of Shell on the environment and concentrating on practical solutions,” he says.

The Smithsonian team is looking deeper into the primary and secondary effects of Shell’s activities. How do animals react when new roads slice their habitat? Do the same elephants move between the two national parks or stay in the central industrial corridor? Understanding the ecological impact of natural-resource development on the habitat of wildlife is critical to the success of Gabon’s protected-area system.

So far, the Smithsonian’s recommendations involve issues such as human-elephant interaction, road building, traffic speeds and the preparation of well sites. Narrower forest roads, for instance, are being built with verges seeded with a mulch of indigenous plant seeds and nutrients to encourage growth and prevent erosion.

“We need roads, but they have all kinds of effects,” says Mr Bakker. “I was not surprised to find that if you make a wide road some animals won’t cross it, but you wouldn’t imagine that some birds won’t fly over it either. So now we don’t make the roads too wide to start with and leave the canopies intact in places so that the trees overarch and create paths in the air.”

Balancing Man and Wildlife

Other recommendations include forbidding permanent settlements in the forest and keeping land clearance around wellheads to a minimum. Recent technological advances now allow Shell to bypass restricting itself to drilling vertical holes through the reservoir and instead enable it to turn corners underground to reduce the number of wells that need to be drilled.

The effects of flaring on wildlife are also being studied. It is especially hazardous to insects that serve as food and pollinators for other species but are attracted by the light and fly into the flames. Wells bring a mix of oil, water and natural gas to the surface. After separation, the water is cleaned and released and the natural gas – unprofitable in Gabon – burned in flares. However, the recently launched Rabi Phase III campaign aims to change that. A $300-million project will end the need for flaring by re-injecting natural gas into the ground.

This groundbreaking partnership has already offered a fascinating insight into the long-term impact on the environment of oil companies’ policies and operations and Smithsonian and Shell are now working to create an international code of practice applicable to all of Shell’s companies working in environmentally-sensitive zones.

It has certainly been an excellent PR exercise for Shell whose reputation hasn’t always been untarnished with controversies over its activities in the Niger Delta and the North Sea with the Brent Spa platform for example but the lessons learned may have important consequences in its explorations in sensitive areas elsewhere in the world, such as Alaska, where it is part of the current oil rush.

This, says Mr Pauwels, is the closest collaboration yet between the oil industry and science. “As far as we are concerned, this relationship is extremely solid and interactive. It’s a great model for future work that can be done with other oil companies and industries.”

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[byline Sarah Monaghan]