“I realized what I wanted to do when I was about 10 years old: work for the government,” Roger–Francois Azizet said last spring in a National School of Forestry classroom in Cap Esterias, Gabon. “That was when I realized the impacts that oil and gas were having on my country, and they weren’t all positive. The actual moment struck me when the fish we had eaten my whole life — that used to sustain our family — suddenly tasted like oil.”

Hydrocarbon oil — not peanut or canola oil.

Azizet is a 30–year–old–ish oil and gas inspection team leader for Gabon’s national park system, which includes the equivalent of 13 national wildlife refuges. The economy of Gabon, a small sub–Saharan former French colony on the Equator in west Africa, is heavily dependent on oil production and exportation.

Azizet was one of 10 students in a class I was teaching. I was there under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the MENTOR–FOREST Program, a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the government of Gabon.

I was invited to train students and Parcs Gabon’s newly hired inspectors about oil and gas operations from start to finish, and about how to reduce such operations’ impacts on wildlife and habitat. I was also asked to visit several seismic, development and operational sites, and to recommend how to reduce environmental impacts in places where oil and gas work was just starting, in development or long completed.

I spent four weeks in Gabon — three in the field with government–contracted biologists working on oil and gas issues (inspections/surveys, negotiations with oil and gas companies, reviewing plans and proposals) and one teaching the class in Cap Esterias.

During that time, I learned that, while Parcs Gabon has few experienced oil and gas specialists, the agency faces challenges similar to those that the National Wildlife Refuge System faces. Just as we often are powerless to stop oil and gas development on or near a refuge, Parcs Gabon is powerless to stop it. All we can do — and all Parcs Gabon can do — is work to minimize the impacts and habitat fragmentation. Like us, Parcs Gabon sometimes has difficulty gaining access — because of remote locations and industry opposition — to do inspections that ensure compliance with the few existing environmental regulations. Like us, Parcs Gabon has too much land to cover and too few staff specialists to cover it.

I also learned that Gabon is more than 80 percent rainforest, that some locales get more than 10 feet of rain per year and that the nation supports an array of wildlife from elephants, gorillas, mandrills and bonobos to endemic tropical plants and birds.

I met with several oil and gas operators who appeared willing to consider adopting newer, less environmentally impactful technologies to conserve that wildlife. We discussed threats to wildlife that oil and gas operations can pose, including erosion, habitat fragmentation, spills and poaching access. The conversation led to the notion that, if the Gabonese oil and gas industry does not take action to reduce environmental impacts, humans could be affected, too — by brine or chemical spills, improperly abandoned wells/infrastructure and long–term damage to drinking water aquifers.

I sense it will take a long time to see significant changes in operations in Gabon. However, by providing consultation services to committed individuals like Roger–Francois Azizet and helping Parcs Gabon build the internal capacity to address large–scale oil and gas mitigation projects, the Service will gain insight into its own projects, too. It’s a win–win for both agencies and both countries.

Scott Covington is the Refuge System’s national energy program coordinator.