Gemsbok Kgalagadi 2015 12 03
Straddling the border between South Africa and Botswana, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a 3,6 million hectare semi-arid wildlife reserve home to an array of species, including one of the continent’s last viable lion populations. Image © Tania Kühl

In a controversial move that could tarnish Botswana’s exemplary reputation as a leader in wildlife conservation, it's emerged that the country’s government quietly sold mining licences last year granting a British energy company permission to frack for shale gas in one of Africa’s largest conservation areas.

According to a report by environmental journalist Jeff Barbee published in The Guardian yesterday, prospecting licences have been issued for an area spanning more than half of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, leaving conservationists and park officials – who were largely unaware of these developments – concerned about the impact of the drilling.

“The development that is going to have to go on there, with infrastructure that has to be moved in, seems to be yet another nail in the coffin of wild areas in the world,” warns author and zoologist Gus Mills, who has lived much of his life in the park studying the area’s hyenas and cheetahs.

The surreptitious sale happened in September 2014 when drilling licences were granted to UK-listed company Nodding Donkey (now called Karoo Energy), reports Barbee. However, an article written by photojournalist Scott Ramsay in February 2014 suggests that plans to prospect for methane gas may have been in place before this.

Park officials were largely left in the dark about the drilling decision. “We haven’t seen any licences being issued, we haven’t been told of anything and there is no company drilling in the park,” Botswana Kgalagadi park manager Leabaneng Bontshetse told Barbee.

Despite this, The Guardian claims to have found oil sediment on the ground near a popular camp site. “There was an overwhelming smell of tar and a drill stem protruded from an apparently recently drilled hole. It is not known who had carried out the drilling or when.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it may be because a startlingly similar story emerged from a reserve further north in 2013. Location aside, the facts were almost the same: the Botswana government came under fire after reports surfaced that lucrative licences had been granted to international investors to frack in the fragile Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). Local people in the area were unaware of the plans to mine.

So what would fracking mean for the wildlife of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park? The short answer is that we don’t really know. According to a study published in North America last year, the impact of hydraulic fracturing on wildlife and the environment remains largely unknown. The fiercely debated mining practice involves drilling and injecting fluid into the earth at high pressure in order to release natural gases. Although concerns abound regarding contamination of groundwater, those in the pro-fracking camp argue that the risks can be managed effectively as long as “operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation”.

Ecological implications aside, perhaps those most upset with Botswana’s decision to frack one of its iconic wildlife reserves are the park’s regular visitors. The reserve is fast becoming a less commercial and more remote alternative to South Africa’s flagstone Kruger National Park, and returning visitors are hooked on the area’s unique wildlife and limited accessibility. If fracking commences, its red dunes may soon be dotted with a new "mechanical species" – one that many feel is tragically invasive.

Fracking 2015 12 03
A close-up of a hydraulic fracturing rig on a farm in Dimock, Pennsylvania. Image © Riverkeeper


Top header image: Simon Fraser University