Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Oil & Opportunity

Can oil and conservation mix? A Zoo partnership in Africa provides answersand hope.

By Valerie May

There’s a little-known outpost of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo where forests meet the white sands of the Atlantic, where hippos surf the waves as humpbacks patrol the horizon, and where manatees swim in inland lagoons. Leatherback turtles, weighing up to a ton, lay eggs. Elephants, chimps, and forest buffalo tread the beach; lowland gorillas roam the forest. This teeming patchwork of rainforests, beaches, savannas, sand dunes, lagoons, mangrove swamps, and wetlands is known as the Gamba Complex. It is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. And it lies atop one of the largest known oil deposits in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

African elephant (Brian Gratwicke)

Biodiversity Haven

The Gamba Complex is in southwestern Gabon, a central African nation about the size of Colorado. The complex covers 4,250 square miles and represents the continent’s last undeveloped sliver of Atlantic coastal plains. It includes two national parks, an industrial corridor, and the Rabi and Toucan oil fields. The Gamba Complex is also home to an extraordinary partnership—the Gabon Biodiversity Program. Established in 2000, under the leadership of scientists Francisco Dallmeier and Alfonso Alonso, the program is a joint effort by the Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and Shell Gabon, with the support of the Gabonese government, to study and protect the region’s biodiversity.

“Our goal is to understand and sustain the biodiversity that is there and to connect people to conservation,” says Alonso, who leads the program. “And we work with Shell Gabon to integrate conservation with oil extraction.”

SCBI’s research and education programs have transformed people’s understanding of the importance of the Gamba Complex for biodiversity conservation. “Before we arrived,” Alonso says, “people knew mostly about game species and commercially valuable trees, but the vast and complex array of other species was virtually unknown.” Scientists have now documented more than 2,000 species in the complex. The list includes a brand-new addition to the known bird world, the olive-backed forest robin.

The true wonder of the Gamba Complex extends beyond species lists. “It’s not so much the number of species that makes it special; it’s the whole assemblage of environments, from coastal areas, inlets, and immense lagoons to savannas, coastal forests, and dense rainforests” says the newly appointed deputy director of the program, Lisa Korte. “The ‘empty-forest syndrome’ where the habitat has been emptied of animals due to hunting, is often found in the rainforests of the Amazon and Southeast Asia. Yet in Gabon the forests are still quite vibrant. It’s the marvelous existence of the entire ecosystem.”

Studying the Gamba Complex, Alonso adds, “helps us to understand nature in an area of low human impact—an opportunity rarely found in the rest of the world. The sizes of wildlife populations are as nature intended. We are able to study life and natural processes as they reveal themselves.”

Green tree python

Gamba Complex (Brian Gratwicke)

Proud Partnership

This entrée into an almost pristine world is the result, paradoxically, of Shell Gabon’s presence and partnership with SCBI. “The thing is, they enforce very strict health, safety, and environmental rules in their operations. These protect the landscape, biodiversity, and people” says Alonso.

Shell Gabon uses an “off-shore” approach to drilling, Alonso explains. “They treat these drilling sites as if they were islands.” Environmental impact assessments provide a clear process for land use with minimal impact on biodiversity, and management practices enforce human behaviors. Hunting is forbidden, driving speed is limited to 40 kilometers an hour, and night driving is by special permit only.

SCBI scientists and their partners have conducted innovative research on a variety of topics. The first few years, they mapped the biodiversity of the Gamba Complex. They found 374 species of plants, 70 mammals, 78 amphibians, 86 reptiles, 69 fishes, and more than 1,600 insects.

Researchers then started to make sense of the function and connectivity of the landscape by studying the movements of forest elephants, the impacts of roads on wildlife, the effects of invasive fire ants on native species, the impacts of “black spots,” or small oil spills, on biodiversity, the negative effects of forest edges on biodiversity, reducing the spread of nonnative plants, crocodiles and safety, and human-elephant interactions. The program has also conducted many training programs and outreach efforts, including a snake conservation program in residential areas.

A large portion of the research and conservation-outreach programs has been funded through grants from the Shell Foundation and Shell Gabon. Researchers have also benefitted from the professional experience of Shell Gabon employees and from logistical access to otherwise very remote areas. Yet the researchers maintain their “scientific independence,” Alonso stresses. “Results of the data are widely available through publications and reports.” The scientists’ work has also benefitted Shell Gabon’s operations. The company has adopted 16 biodiversity recommendations based on SCBI research. “We can advance science, conservation, and education while contributing to impact mitigation and sustainable development,” says Alonso.

Road Research

One key impact on the environment is the construction of service roads to access locations for oil extraction and transport. Shell Gabon generally builds narrow roads to minimize their effect. Still, roads can be problematic for an ecosystem. They can fragment habitats and provide poachers with access to previously inaccessible places.

What effects are roads having in the Gamba Complex? Previous SCBI work showed that roads had the greatest impact on ungulates, both large and small. Road avoidance was greatest when coupled with local hunting pressure, which fortunately is almost nonexistent within the Rabi Shell Gabon concession.

To learn more, SCBI scientists recently kicked off a new study. They seek to determine the impact of roads on mammals that weigh two pounds or more and live near the town of Gamba. This fall, a team headed up by SCBI post-doc and French ecologist Hadrien Vanthomme and Gabonese scientist Arnaud Martial Mboutsou Matoka began marking 200 line transects. Each is 1,640 feet long. The transects lie in savannas and forests, both near and far from public roads as well as Shell Gabon’s service roads.

After establishing the transects, the team started walking the lines, recording every animal and animal sign, such as elephant dung or gorilla nests, encountered. This first assessment took place during the rainy season, A second is planned for the dry season, in July through August of 2011.

“We are studying direct disturbance caused by the traffic,” says Vanthomme. “Many species avoid even the edges of the forest next to the road, what is called the ‘edge effect.’ But some species, on the contrary, can be attracted by roads either because it provides new-growth vegetation they can feed on, like elephants, or because they use it as a convenient path in the forest, like leopards.”

The study also relies on camera trapping. Digital cameras set on each of the forest transects are triggered when a source of heat passes in front. “They are especially good for recording nocturnal species like the brushtailed porcupine, the African golden cat, and the serval,” says Vanthomme.

Help Wanted

Another key challenge for the Gabon Biodiversity Program is “creating the next generation of conservation practitioners,” Alonso says. That includes training Gabonese biologists and protected-area managers.

The program is undertaking a needs assessment in terms of professional training. That study, Alonso says, will attempt to answer several questions: “Where are the gaps? Where are the resources? And how can we best help Gabon meet this need?”

The need for trained people is especially apparent when looking at Gabon’s national parks. In 2002, then President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba created 13 national parks in a land that had had none. The parks make up almost 11 percent of Gabon’s total land mass.


Frog (Brian Gratwicke)

The action was laudable, Korte says, but not without significant challenges, particularly in terms of infrastructure. “They went from zero to 13,” she explains.“They literally do not have the boots on the ground to patrol them, and it is murky as to how those national park boundaries are going to be respected.” One of Korte’s prime objectives in her new position is to mentor the Gabonese staff, lead the science and education programs, and “increase the capacity of our Gabonese scientists.”

She will also lead much of the educational outreach program that currently takes place at the Smithsonian Biodiversity
Laboratory at Vembo, sometimes called the gateway to the Gamba Complex. “The tropical rainforest, savanna, and wetland habitats are right outside the door,” says Alonso. “So we literally walk out the door and become part of a dynamic ecosystem.”

Memorable Moments

Walking out that door has led both Alonso and Korte to memorable moments. Alonso’s voice warms as he describes “one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life.” He observed a female leatherback turtle efficiently excavating a nest and depositing eggs. “It was amazing to see the way they do it, so fast, so beautiful. She laid her eggs and then pounded the sand with her flippers to close the hole. Very professional. There was no sign at all that the eggs were there.”

Korte’s moment came at the edge between two ecosystems: “The savanna was behind us, and we walked into the forest—where we could hear chimps calling. The chimps disappeared when they heard us coming, and we turned to leave and basically bumped into a lone silverback gorilla. Your instinct is to turn and run—a bad idea. We crouched on the ground and didn’t look at him. You want to be very submissive. He pounded his chest for a bit and then moved on. Gabon offers those kinds of heart-stopping opportunities.”

As the Gabon Biodiversity Program succeeds, the descendants of that silverback will roam the rainforest for generations to come. The chest-thumping might serve as an expression of success that can come when competing interests find ways to work together, forging an outcome that benefits all.


— VALERIE MAY is a freelance writer and web producer, as well as a frequent contributor to Smithsonian Zoogoer.



More: "Gabon: What Went Right?"

More: "Tracking the Trees"


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 39(6) 2010. Copyright 2010 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.