RUNDU, NAMIBIA Canadian oil and gas exploration company Reconnaissance Energy Africa has bulldozed land for a test oil well inside a protected wildlife area in northeastern Namibia, and two local leaders say they were offered jobs in return for their silence.
Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy borders the Okavango River and extends more than 22 miles south into the Kalahari Desert. Established in 2018 to protect habitat for charismatic animals such as elephants and rare sable antelope, the conservancy also attracts tourism and provides jobs for some of its 3,700 residents. Villages are interspersed among groves of towering teak, rosewood, and mopane trees, which offer vital shade.
But last December, the oil company came.
Today a clearing the size of five football fields scars the Kapinga Kamwalye refuge, sensitive land bulldozed in January by ReconAfrica for an exploratory drill site. Pits holding waste from test drilling are filled with dark liquid. Fields are pocked with the heavy imprint of metal seismic testing plates. Ripped-up trees lie in blackened heaps alongside wide tracks through the bush.
Since National Geographic began reporting last year on environmental and community concerns about ReconAfrica’s oil exploration near the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site, opposition to the project has grown in Namibia and beyond.
New evidence, including aerial photographs taken in September 2021, points to ReconAfrica having drilled in the conservancy without proper permissions.
In a statement emailed to National Geographic, the company wrote, “ReconAfrica categorically denies that it engaged in any wrongdoing.”
“The Company’s commitment to ethics and business conduct are based on the highest standards of corporate governance, respect, integrity, and responsibility,” ReconAfrica wrote. The company did not provide answers to a detailed list of questions emailed by National Geographic.
Meanwhile, a whistleblower who is a global securities expert filed a complaint on May 5 with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), accusing ReconAfrica of misleading regulators and investors about its work. The confidential complaint, which is based on public records, prompted two U.S. members of Congress to call for an investigation by the Department of Justice and the SEC. (The agencies would not confirm an investigation into ReconAfrica’s activities.)
Recently, a class action lawsuit was also filed against ReconAfrica executives and associates, alleging violations of federal securities laws.
Celebrity environmentalists are speaking out. Leonardo DiCaprio, Forest Whitaker, and Ellen DeGeneres are among those who signed an open letter written by the environmental nonprofit Re:wild calling for a moratorium on ReconAfrica’s drilling. Prince Harry, meanwhile, published an opinion piece in the Washington Post with Namibian scientist and activist Reinhold Mangundu about threats to the region posed by ReconAfrica’s operations.
ReconAfrica obtained licenses in 2015 and 2020 to explore for oil and gas across more than 13,200 square miles in the ecologically sensitive, wildlife-rich Okavango Delta watershed in Namibia and Botswana. UNESCO recognizes the delta, a 7,000-square-mile oasis, as a natural landscape with “outstanding value to humanity.” It’s home to endangered animals, including wild dogs, white-backed vultures, black rhinos, and Africa’s largest remaining herd of savanna elephants.
The company’s exploration licenses cover a significant part of the sprawling Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), established by five countries in southern Africa, in part to safeguard the headwaters of the region’s great rivers, including the Okavango.
ReconAfrica’s Namibia license is valid until January 29, 2023, and the company has said it will drill multiple wells in 2022. Test drilling so far has taken place roughly 160 miles upstream of the delta.
Critics describe ReconAfrica as adopting an act-first-ask-later approach: clearing land and conducting test drilling before securing land-use permits and local permissions, and using water and disposing of it before receiving water permits.
“The precedent of drilling first and asking permission later completely undermines any [environmental impact assessment] process, the rule of law, and, obviously, best practices,” said Erica Lyman, a law professor and director of the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment at Lewis & Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon.
ReconAfrica spokesperson Claire Preece toldNational Geographic in October 2020 that the company would “ensure that there is no environmental impact from these wells,” adding that “ReconAfrica follows Namibian regulations and policies as well as international best practices.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.