Photo by Dominic Lipinski/Getty Images
  • Italian energy company Eni plans to start six deep-water oil wells in a 400km long exploration block known as Block ER236.
  • Conservationists believe this threatens a colony of some 30 coelacanths, found off the Sodwana coast in 2000.
  • The fish had been believed extinct until 1938, and are considered living fossils, having amazingly survived, unchanged, for hundreds of millions of years.

South Africa’s last known colony of coelacanth, fish that have survived for more than 420 million years, could be under threat from oil exploration, conservationists warn.

Italian energy group Eni plans to start six deep-water oil wells in a 400km long exploration block known as Block ER236, near the iSimangaliso wetland park in South Africa.

Block ER236, near the iSimangaliso wetland park in South Africa.

A report from the Guardian says this may threaten the future of a colony of some 30 coelacanth found off the Sodwana coast in 2000, 40km from the northern boundary of the Eni exploration area, and nearly 200km north of the first drilling sites.

See also: A rare Cape vulture survived tangling with a power line and being shipped to the US – only to be killed in a hailstorm this week

"The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 decimated fish populations – so if we had an oil spill off iSimangaliso it is very likely it could wipe out these coelacanths," said Dr. Andrew Venter, the chief executive of the Wildlands Conservation Trust.

The trust is one of several conservation groups lobbying for a significant expansion of South Africa’s protected ocean areas.

The bright blue coelacanth, weighing as much as an average-sized man, were thought to be extinct until a living specimen was caught off East London in 1938. Further captures off the Comoros islands and Tanzania definitively proved they were not extinct.

Watch: a team of divers off who came face to face with a coelacanth off the coast of South Africa for National Geographic Wild:  

According to coelacanth expert Prof. Mike Bruton, previous research shows that the remoteness of their habitat had not protected them from exposure to pollutants like PCB and DDT used on land.

See also: 12 rare animals that are teetering on the brink of extinction

Eni commissioned a mandatory environmental impact assessment (EIA) but, according to the conservationists, the report makes little mention of the protection of the Sodwana coelacanths. 

"Eni always applies the highest operational and environmental standards, which often exceed local compliance regulations," the energy group responded, and added that a study about accidental spillage modelling is being independently reviewed.

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