Elephants in the Oilfields

Forest elephants in the Mbeli River, Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Congo. (Photo/Thomas Breuer)

I never thought I’d say this, but could oil and gas development actually be good for wildlife?

If you’re an African forest elephant hanging out in the oilfields of Gabon, the answer looks to be a resounding yes. In fact, new research shows elephants might actually prefer living in active oil and gas fields over the surrounding national parks. So what do the elephants know that we don’t? The new study by the Smithsonian Institute’s Center for Conservation, Education and Sustainability takes a look at this unusual relationship.

Gabon is home to a lot of elephants, about 11,000. The central African country also boasts an incredible level of biodiversity with more than 353 species of plants and 75 species of amphibians in the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas (a network of national parks covering slightly less area than the state of Connecticut) alone. But Gabon is also rich in natural resources, including petroleum, and there are several active energy fields operating in the region, two of which, Rabi and the Gamba-Ivinga, sit between national parks in the Gamba complex.

Usually energy development of this kind conjures images of destroyed environments and absent wildlife. But in Gabon, oil and gas concessions seem to serve as a type of wildlife haven, at least for the elephants, and the study indicates that these fields could also help out the forest’s other inhabitants, including primates.

Past research shows that roads, abandoned villages and croplands likely create new and approved dining spots for elephants. But a land with lots of roads often means a land with lots of hunters, so those dining spots often go untouched by the elephants. As nature would have it, take away the hunters, and the story begins to sound a bit different.

Joseph Kolowski, a researcher with Smithsonian Institute’s and the National Zoo’s Center for Conservation, Education and Sustainability, along with a team that includes six other researchers from the center, the Wildlife Conservation Society and various universities decided to track the movements of elephants in the Gabon region to find out what was going on with elephants in the oilfields.

They fitted four elephants, two each in the Rabi and the Gamba-Ivinga oilfields, with GPS telemetry collars. Researchers tracked and correlated location points of elephants with roadways and other disturbed areas during a 20-month period in 2004 and 2005. They also looked at the movements of other elephants in the region outside the oilfields. What they found was nothing short of astounding.

Overall, the elephants collared in the oilfields showed a clear preference for staying within the boundaries of the concessions. They walked shorter home ranges, and liked to hang out near roadways. One female in particular never strayed more than 2.6 km from a road and her home-base centered on the most active area of the Rabi oilfield. It’s the first study, according to the researchers, to show elephants residing almost exclusively within an oilfield. In Rabi, for example, the two elephants tagged there, stayed within the concession 86 and 98 percent of the time.

“Why?” you might ask. True, Rabi is one of the countries largest and most active oilfields, but it’s also one of the best protected. More than 90 percent of the field’s forest remains intact. The oilfield limits road access to industry personnel and rigorously enforces a zero-hunting policy. The fact that there aren’t many people around also helps. In Gamba-Ivinga, the oilfields also limit road access and hunting, but not as strictly as in Rabi, and the oilfield also exists near a village of 9,000 people, many of which are employed by the industry.

Nevertheless, both oilfields provided new foraging opportunities and protection for the forest elephants in this study, showing that not all oilfields are bad, and that managed well, they may even offer benefits not available in the national parks. If only there weren’t more stories like this one associated with mass-scale fossil fuel extraction.

This study is available online early in the African Journal of Ecology.

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