Namibia: Concern for elephants in Okavango Basin grows
Arlana Shikongo
27th April 2021

Interested and affected parties in the oil exploration activities in the Okavango Basin are deeply concerned about the impacts of potential 2D seismic surveying to be undertaken in the area on wildlife, particularly elephants.

Stakeholders, who have long been against the ongoing oil and gas exploration activities by Canadian company Reconnaissance Africa (Recon), have submitted objections to Recon’s application to perform 2D seismic surveys in the area.

This is detailed in several submissions by various environmental groups who shared concerns about the environmental impact assessment (EIA) and environmental management plan (EMP) submitted by Recon for their application.

They are also concerned that Recon’s recent announcement about the discovery of a working conventional petroleum system in the basin at their first drill site will give government impetus to issue the necessary licensing without fully considering the objections.

Saving Okavango’s Unique Life (SOUL), an alliance of civil society organisations and activists who promote environmental justice, believes the call for public comment was merely a facade by the government to feign inclusivity where a decision has already been taken.

This is largely because the window for public comment was initially eight days and was slated to close on 9 April. The period for public comment was since extended to 23 April [today].

“There’s concern this is a compromised process and we are appealing for a reasonable extension, because a mere eight working days’ public consultation is a bit of a sham.

“There is also fear that by partaking, it is potentially legitimising a process which already has a predetermined outcome,” said Veruschka Dumeni of Friday’s for Future Windhoek (FFFW), a member organisation of SOUL, prior to the deadline extension.

Furthermore, citing a 2015 study by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Uganda which showed that elephants are negatively affected by seismic surveys, the coalition fears that the long lasting impacts on one of the continent’s most intact African elephant populations have not adequately been assessed.

According to the study, elephant behaviour, movement, migratory patterns and home ranges were all adversely impacted by oil developments in Uganda.

Speaking to The Namibian, the president and co-founder of The Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, Rosemary Alles, said oil exploration activities will likely cause a great disruption to elephant populations as the clearing of area and creation of roads creates access to areas uninhabited by humans.

“After Covid-19, one of our primary responsibilities should be to leave wildlife places in-tact, to not disrupt them, to not create roads into them where more poaching can happen, where more pathogens can evolve, where more spillover incidents can occur and set the stage for extinction,” she said.

Alles, who has closely studied and worked on the conservation of elephant populations for a number of years, added that elephants are highly sensitive to sound, thus increased movement in their uninhabited areas could force them closer to areas inhabited by humans.

“This is the way they communicate through infrasound. So when they detect human activity, being that they are highly sentient, intelligent, social animals, there is potential for them to move away from the area to find different migratory routes.

“Those other migratory routes may lead them closer to human habitat and that could lead to human-elephant conflict and both for elephants and humans it could be a fatal result of the drilling,” she added.

Concern for these elephant populations has deepened as the International Union for Conservation of Nature recently included African elephants as endangered on their Red List of Threatened Species, which is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of extinction risk animals.

This is the first time the IUCN has listed the two African elephant species separately, giving each its own unique listing. Prior to this, African elephants were treated as a single species listed as vulnerable.

“Following population declines over several decades due to poaching for ivory and loss of habitat, the African forest elephant is now listed as critically endangered and the African savannah elephant as endangered […]

“This is the first time the two species have been assessed separately for the IUCN Red List following the emergency of new genetic evidence,” IUCN announced last month.

The concerned environmental groups feel it is more important now more than ever to ensure the protection of the large mammal and take into consideration the effect oil exploration activities will have on their populations and habitats in southern Africa.