By Kate Good
A growing conflict between oil interests and local people and wildlife is beginning to erupt in Kilifi County, Kenya. This particular section of Kenya, known as Block L16, is home to a number of vital conservation sites, including the Arabuko Sokoke Forest. Camac Engery, an American oil company has won a bid to explore potential reserves in Block L16 and have contracted the Bureau of Geographic Prospecting (BGP) to carry out seismic testing of the region. These tests allow Camac to know where the reserves lie and whether it is worth it to move forward with drilling.
The pursuit of oil in the Arabuko Sokoke Forest has signaled a huge response from the local community and conservationists alike. Arabuko Sokoke Forest is a nationally protected park, however, it appears that if a national conservation zone is so inconveniently located on top of an oil reserve, the park’s protected status becomes a mere “suggestion.” BGP was set to move forward with the seismic survey, but Camac has agreed to halt operations for the moment due to local opposition. This comes as welcome news to community members, but it does not mean that the threat of continued pursuit of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest’s potential oil reserves is over.
For the sake of the people of Kilifi County, as well as the many endangered species who call the forest home, we must ensure that Camac not only halts testing for the time being, but also agrees to end exploration in the area all together.
More Than a Forest
The Arabuko Sokoke Forest (ASF) is the last remaining indigenous forest in Kenya as well as the largest and most intact coastal forest in East Africa. Within the bounds of this forest’s 103, 784 acres, lives countless diverse plant and animal species including, a herd of 150 elephants, six species of endangered birds and the world-famous Kipepeo Butterfly Project. The forest ecosystem is critical to the livelihood of the surrounding community as they rely on the resources it provides and the disturbance that oil exploration poses to region is a risk that cannot be taken.
The initial plan for seismic testing in the forest involved splitting ASF into four meter wide transects. At every 60 meter interval, a one meter deep hole is drilled and explosives are inserted to blast the hole down another four meters. Based on the data retrieved, BGP can tell where the forest’s oil reserves are most abundant.
“The seismic surveys will do outright damage to the forest,” says Dr Paul Matiku, the executive director of the organization, Nature Kenya. “The transect lines cut through the forest.”
ASF contains eight major conservation zones and the testing transects right through a critical biodiversity area. Not only will the seismic testing be destructive to the surrounding environment, but it is incredibly disruptive for the forest’s animals.
A study conducted in Gabon demonstrated that low impact seismic operations can cause considerable, though temporary, habitat loss to surrounding species. While the damage done to animals may be assuaged once testing ends, if a population of endangered species is driven out of the area and unable to survive as the result, this loss cannot be reversed.
The elephant herd that resides in ASF is already endangered by limited access to water and poachers. The elephant’s habitat is enclosed by ring fencing to help keep elephants from venturing onto local farms and destroying crops. Because of this set up, elephant will not be able to escape the effects of seismic activity in their habitat. Elephants use seismic waves for communication and setting off hundreds of seismic explosions in the forest would cause seemingly endless distress to these delicate beings.
The African elephant population is critically endangered and predicted to be extinct by 2020 if action is not taken to protect them. Oil exploration will further open up ASF to poachers as more attention and traffic is brought to the area.
As of yet, the Kenya Forest Service have denied access to ASF, but if Camac manages to receive approval and move forward with seismic testing and drilling, the consequences will inevitably be devastating to this last remaining mostly intact East African forest.