As the world’s supply of easily recoverable crude oil gets used up, oil and gas companies are beginning to prospect in more remote, fragile ecosystems such as the rainforests where forest elephants make their homes. Central African countries such as the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea are particularly being targeted because of their petroleum’s high quality and low production costs¹. These intrusions and ecosystem disturbances are becoming an increasing threat to forest elephants.
Since oil collecting operations require large numbers of workers, companies oftentimes recruit employees on a national level. This results in large numbers of people migrating close to, or even within, protected areas. One survey found that many of these people are not even aware they are living in a protected area¹. The villages established by these migrants often participate in the illegal bushmeat trade, including forest elephants¹. Bushmeat refers to all species of wildlife hunted for both local consumption and trade in commercial markets, whether legal or illegal, and increasingly has a major negative impact on the biodiversity of rainforest habitats.
While many oil companies prohibit the hunting and selling of bushmeat within the concessions they manage, their environmental policies usually don’t take the surrounding areas into account. Buying and hunting for bushmeat is therefore not discouraged in those areas¹. One researcher reported that the employees of an oil company called Shell Gabon were using marked company vehicles to hunt for bushmeat and that its private flights were facilitating the transportation of bushmeat to major parts of Gabon¹.
These facts are consistent with the findings of a 2008 study which found that forest elephants living in the Rabi oil concession (managed by Shell Gabon) had lower stress hormone levels than those living in the neighboring Loango National Park. The researchers attributed this to the concession’s ban on the consumption of bushmeat, its restrictions on the speed of vehicles, and 24 hour checkpoints. However, lack of protection in the area surrounding the concession (such as Loango National Park) caused increased stress hormone levels in resident elephants². Unfortunately, the effort to reduce industry impacts on wildlife varies greatly among oil companies.
In addition to increasing poaching, oil exploration/extraction has many other negative effects on the habitat of forest elephants. These range from soil contamination and bushfires to air, noise, and water pollution¹. Peter Wrege and his colleagues,³ using acoustic monitoring techniques developed by the Elephant Listening Project, found that resident elephants gradually became nocturnal when companies were prospecting for oil in Loango National Park, Gabon. This switch can potentially decrease the amount of time elephants have available for foraging which can, in turn, result in more competition between individuals and potentially increased stress. Another, contemporaneous study in the same part of Loango N.P., found that elephants avoided areas where seismic activity from oil operations was creating a lot of noise⁴.
Oil extraction operations in the habitat of African forest elephants can negatively affect them by increasing the amount of poaching for bushmeat and by altering their behavior patterns. While the situation may seem bleak there are potential solutions. For instance, oil companies can be pressured to take more responsibility for poaching activity in the areas surrounding their concessions. However, this may become more difficult if the operations become dominated by national African companies which are less susceptible to international pressure than multinational corporations². In addition, within the concessions more efforts can be made to reduce disruption of the elephants’ behavior. This can include spacing out disruptive activities, restricting exploration to smaller portions of forest, and making them predictable to the elephants. Oil and other resource exploration is bound to increase as Africa’s population increases and creative, effective policies are essential to minimize the impacts on Africa’s elephants.
¹Thibault, Marc, and Sonia Blaney. “The oil industry as an underlying factor in the bushmeat crisis in Central Africa.” Conservation biology 17, no. 6 (2003): 1807–1813.http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2003.00159.x/full
²Munshi‐South, Jason, Landry Tchignoumba, Janine Brown, Nicole Abbondanza, Jésus E. Maldonado, Ann Henderson, and Alfonso Alonso. “Physiological indicators of stress in African forest elephants (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) in relation to petroleum operations in Gabon, Central Africa.” Diversity and Distributions 14, no. 6 (2008): 995–1003.
³Wrege, Peter H., Elizabeth D. Rowland, Bruce G. Thompson, and Nikolas Batruch. “Use of acoustic tools to reveal otherwise cryptic responses of forest elephants to oil exploration.” Conservation Biology 24, no. 6 (2010): 1578–1585.http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01559.x/full
⁴Rabanal, Luisa I., Hjalmar S. Kuehl, Roger Mundry, Martha M. Robbins, and Christophe Boesch. “Oil prospecting and its impact on large rainforest mammals in Loango National Park, Gabon.” Biological Conservation 143, no. 4 (2010): 1017–1024. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320710000182
Find out more about the Elephant Listening Project
To conserve the tropical forests of Africa through acoustic monitoring, sound science, and education, focusing on forest elephants