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Working with Industry to Conserve African Forests

  • elephant walking along a fence

Gabon Biodiversity Program

The Smithsonian Institution provides innovative research and conservation actions through its Gabon Biodiversity Program. The 11,132,000-hectare Gamba Complex of Protected Areas in southwestern Gabon is rich in biodiversity, encompassing many habitat types and species of concern including gorillas, forest elephants and sea turtles. However, the Gamba Complex also contains the largest oil development in the country. Since 2000, the team has worked collaboratively through a partnership between the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Shell Gabon and other stakeholders, including the Government of Gabon. The partnership acts as a regional research hub attracting national and international researchers, industry managers and international news outlets, to work with technical personnel in-country and in Washington, D.C., to conserve biodiversity in Gabon. The Biodiversity and Education Center in Gamba houses national collections of plant and animal specimens.

The objectives of the program are to:

  • Monitor the status of biodiversity: Which species persist in the Gamba Complex, and where are they distributed? How can trends in species populations and identification of the major threats to those populations be better understood?
  • Identify best practices to minimize development impacts on biodiversity: How do different ecosystem features and management practices influence biodiversity distribution? How can oil exploration and road development practices be adapted to improve environmental outcomes? What agricultural practices can be used to mitigate environmental impacts and minimize human-wildlife conflict?
  • Increase local capacity to sustainably manage natural resources: How can the Smithsonian engage and employ local people in program activities? How can the program build scientific and conservation capacity among the staff?
  • Raise awareness of the value of Gabon's biodiversity: What environmental issues and specimens from the national collections are visitors most interested in learning about? How can diverse groups be introduced to how they benefit from biodiversity?
  • Implement partnerships with many stakeholders to support biodiversity: Which partnerships and collaborations can best support biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in Gabon? How can the Smithsonian leverage its network to connect researchers and practitioners to realize overlapping biodiversity goals?


scientist takes notes in the forest

Rabi Forest Monitoring

The Gabon Biodiversity program established the 25-hectare Rabi Forest Monitoring Plot as part of the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Tropical Forest Science - Forest Global Earth Observatories (CTFS-ForestGEO) research platform, which encompasses more than 60 forest plots around the world dedicated to measuring global climate change impacts. Scientists are monitoring tree growth, arthropod assemblages and large-mammal communities within the plot to better understand forest dynamics, carbon sequestration potential and contribute to global knowledge of the impacts of climate change.

group standing around the bones of a dead elephant

Human-Elephant Conflict Research

The Gamba Complex is a globally important population stronghold for forest elephants threatened by poaching, habitat loss and agriculture-related human-elephant conflict. Researchers are working to inform policy and activities by strengthening estimates of elephant populations and distribution in and around protected areas, oil infrastructure zones, agricultural plantations and near human settlements. Staff are also seeking to strengthen food security and reduce human-elephant conflict by collaborating with farmers to monitor crop-raiding by elephants and testing methods for minimizing yield losses and elephant injuries.

four men kneeling beside an alligator with its mouth taped shut

Crocodile Research

The Gamba Complex is a unique place to study crocodiles, as all three nationally protected crocodile species live in the lagoons and coastal waters in the region. The program is monitoring Nile crocodile behavior at Loango National Park and along the coast near Gamba to inform conservation and safety policies. Researchers are tracking crocodile movements to identify risk-prone areas and activities for human populations, and are using nesting patterns and success rates in combination with range data to inform conservation policies and activities in the Gamba area.

two men standing by a truck on a rural road

Research on Human Disturbances to Wildlife

The Smithsonian is investigating how human-related impacts including hunting, road, industrial activities, settlements and ecosystem features influence large-mammal populations in the Gamba Complex. Scientists are using camera traps to monitor wildlife movements and employing models to assess abundance and distribution across the region, while also developing science-based biodiversity-friendly policy recommendations for industry and government agencies, especially pertaining to road development and monitoring.


three children examining an alligator skin with a magnifying glass

Biodiversity and Education Center

The Smithsonian maintains and contributes to one of the largest collections of flora and fauna specimens in Gabon, housed in the Biodiversity and Education Center in Gamba. Staff lead public tours for visitors with the opportunity to learn about local biodiversity and how they can take action to help protect the environment and conserve biodiversity. Smithsonian facilities provide an important launching point for field expeditions and are also convenient for hosting educational environmental and volunteer events. Additionally, the Biodiversity and Education Center acts as a base for cutting-edge industry collaborations and as a research hub for connecting local institutions with international scientific networks. Program staff collaborate with news outlets and television channels, including the BBC, Smithsonian Networks and National Geographic, to produce documentaries.

a man and woman holding barbed wire

Anti-Poaching Campaign

Scientists have documented declines in wildlife across the Gamba Complex, in part due to illegal hunting, trapping and transporting of wildlife in industrial zones. Given this threat, the Smithsonian works with wildlife authorities, Shell Gabon, and others to lead trap-removal missions and educational campaigns. The program also organizes events and meetings to educate stakeholders about the importance of maintaining wildlife populations and how to hunt within the law.

woman adjusting the settings on a camera trap

Internship and Fellowship Program

Interns affiliated with government agencies, research institutions and universities in Gabon and across the world come to Gamba to work on the Gabon Biodiversity Program. The Smithsonian provides interns opportunities to collaborate on research design; receive on-the-job training in field and analysis methods; produce peer-reviewed research and communication pieces; and support education and outreach activities with a wide array of stakeholders. The Smithsonian also supports post-doctoral research fellows who lead research programs and activities.

children watching a researcher pull a bird out of a mist net

Environmental Education

The Smithsonian has provided technical training to a group of high school biology teachers to establish a self-sustaining Tree Banding Club for students to monitor forest dynamics and related impacts caused by climate change. Staff host club meetings and provide support for local students to gain field skills and learn about environmental issues. Smithsonian researchers also lead a nature club for primary school students to learn about local biodiversity and environmental issues.

man standing in a stream surrounded by trees

Smithsonian Lecture Series

The Smithsonian coordinates a suite of public lectures on biodiversity and conservation topics in the Yenzi neighborhood of Gamba, providing an opportunity for the public to engage and learn about environmental issues from a variety of speakers within the Smithsonian network.