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Expanding Oil Exploration Threatens One of the Sahara's Largest Nature Reserves

The Termit and Tin Toumma National Nature Reserve covers an area three times the size of Belgium and contains numerous endangered species.
Sahara Desert.

Sahara Desert.

Created in 2012, Niger's Termit and Tin Toumma National Nature Reserve is the last region of the Sahara relatively undisturbed by human activity. But expanding oil exploration threatens this sanctuary for 130 bird and 17 mammal species, including the critically endangered addax.

The Termit and Tin Toumma National Nature Reserve (Réserve Naturelle Nationale de Termit et Tin-Toumma) covers nearly 38,600 square miles of desert and low mountains in the southern Sahara, an area three times the size of Belgium and as large as Maine. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is internationally recognized for the biodiversity it hosts within a landscape ranging from mountains and valleys to grassy plains, open desert, and sand seas.

But on June 26th this year, seven years after the reserve was established, the Council of Ministers of Niger announced that its boundaries would be modified, removing nearly 17,300 square miles from the protected area.

"We were shocked to learn this," says Sébastien Pinchon, parks manager at the French non-governmental organization Noé that manages the reserve on behalf of the government. The final agreement entrusting management of the reserve to Noé was signed not long ago, on November 5th, 2018.

"We are just getting started, constructing buildings, buying vehicles, and hiring people to properly manage the area," Pinchon says. The size and remoteness of the area mean it will take one or two years for the reserve to be fully operational, he says.

China National Petroleum Corporation, one of the world's largest oil companies, has exploration rights in a small region inside the reserve, but suddenly pushed for a major expansion, Pinchon says. Ten years ago, Niger announced that, in exchange for a $5 billion investment, the Chinese government-owned CNPC would build a number of wells, a 20,000-barrel-per-day refinery, and a pipeline out of the nation for exports.

The 17,300 square miles the government wants to remove from the reserve also happens to be where most of the wildlife is found, including the addax—of which fewer than 100 individuals remain in the wild—and another critically endangered species, the dama gazelle. "The government proposes to add a similar amount of land to reserve on its western boundary, but it has little ecological value," Pinchon says.

It took decades of surveys, wildlife monitoring, education, and meetings to mobilize support at all levels from the local people living in the area to the president of Niger so the reserve could be created in the first place, says John Newby, senior adviser at the Sahara Conservation Fund, a conservation non-governmental organization.

"The reserve is unique in the entire Sahara-Sahel Region because its rich wildlife community is still intact," says Newby, who has worked in the region for more than 30 years.

However, since CNPC oil operations began in 2010, the addax population has crashed, he says. "It's not the drilling, but poaching by Niger's military units protecting the CNPC camps that has brought the addax to the verge of extinction."

The poaching appears to be for meat. Bloodied military clothing has been found buried with addax remains. "I've run into these military patrols. No one is going to stop them out in the desert," Newby says.

Government and military officials have done little about this despite pleas from conservationists. The Chinese could stop it but they are uninterested in even talking about it, Newby says. "They don't seem to care what's happening."

Noé has made many attempts over the years to meet with CNPC officials, without any success, Pinchon says. This disinterest is in sharp contrast to China's expressed interest in becoming a global leader in biodiversity, he says. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, under Chinese presidency, is organizing the World Congress for Nature in France next year. China will also host what's expected to be a landmark meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in November of 2020.

"Oil and wildlife can co-exist, if it's done to international standards or how it is done in China," Pinchon says. Instead, observers and locals report poisoned livestock near leaking pipelines, dead birds in oil drilling waste ponds, waste dumping in the desert, cutting of trees, and collection of special tubers that are the addax's main source of water, he says.

Oil extraction doesn't have to have a big impact if it's designed well, says Fabien Quétier of Biotope, an ecological science consulting group based in France.

Oil extraction in Gabon by Shell Oil, working with conservation partners including the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, has benefited wildlife and reduced poaching in and around Loango National Park on the country's Atlantic coast, he says.

If China wants to do business in other countries with important ecological areas, it could show that it's capable of operating without any negative impacts in Niger, Quétier says.

"Niger is rightly proud of the amount of protected areas they have. They're one of the world leaders," Newby says. However, it's also one of the poorest countries in the world. That's why Noé is managing the reserve, bringing technical knowledge, training, and millions in funding from the European Union, he says.

Nature reserve management by non-profit organizations on behalf of governments is becoming common in Africa and elsewhere, Newby says. Funding for the reserve will have to continue since the security situation is too risky to generate any revenue from tourism. Niger has been involved in the regional fight to counter Boko Haram, and is also a waypoint for the human trafficking of migrants trying to get to Libya and on to Europe.

Niger needs the oil revenue, and oil extraction can be done without destroying the environment or removing lands from the Reserve, Newby says. "The proposed land swap isn't the solution."

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.