Impact of Oil Development on Wildlife Not Always Obvious

5 10 2010
elephant

Image: Elephant in Murchison Falls National Park

Nobody really knows what effect oil drilling will have on wildlife in Uganda.  Most of the national parks and other protected areas are slated for drilling, and much of the oil is being found in the Albertine Rift, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.  In Murchison Falls National Park, most of the current and proposed test wells are in the areas with the highest concentrations of wildlife and, while efforts are being made to gather some baseline data on the animals to measure impacts against, population numbers are estimates at best, and behavioral studies of the animals are limited or non-existent.  If the natural heritage of this country is going to be protected, a lot more information needs to be gathered.

One thing that Uganda can do is look to studies that have been done in other places that are farther along the oil journey.  Gabon is another country that is drilling in its national parks, and it has many of the same species of animals.  A study was published this year in the journal Biological Conservation that looks at Oil Prospecting and its Impact on Large Rainforest Mammals in Loango National Park, Gabon. The species they looked at are elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys and duikers – all species that can be found in Uganda as well.

The researchers were specifically looking at the effects of noise disturbance from seismic testing in an 80 sq. km. study area.  The method of seismic testing used by the oil companies involved setting dynamite charges below ground at 50 meter intervals along transects through the area.   According to the report, “The sound level pressure of this type of seismic oil explorations reaches usually up to 210dB next to the explosion site.  This is about 10,000 times louder than a jet aircraft flying by at 300 m altitude.”  Yikes.

Learning a Lesson from Oil Development in Gabon

A rainforest is very different from a savanna, and the potential impacts of oil development go far beyond the noise created by seismic testing.  However, there are aspects of this study that I believe are important to keep in mind as Uganda moves forward with its oil development.  The reality is that animal behavior is complex and it is important to approach it in that way.

The researchers confirmed that not all animals will respond to impacts in the same way, so it is impossible to generalize whether or not an activity is having an impact on animal behavior based on observations of one or two species.  They found that those animals with large home ranges (i.e. those that could move – like elephants and gorillas) did move (active avoidance), and those with more limited ranges (like duikers and monkeys) did not leave the areas where seismic testing was happening.  This is important to consider when measuring impacts of oil development

Looking Deeper into the Subtleties of Animal Behavior

Avoidance of habitat is easy to measure.  It is easy to say that before the blasting, elephants were found in the area and afterwards they weren’t.  Even four months after the seismic blasts were finished, the apes and elephants had still not returned to their normal patterns (although they acknowledged a lack of solid information about “normal” migration patterns for these species).

The flip side of this is the ability to look at the animals that don’t move and say there isn’t an impact from oil activities because those animals have not left the site.  Unfortunately, the researchers point out that if a species isn’t able to leave their home area, either due to biological characteristics or threat from others of their own species holding territories bordering of their own (as in the case of chimpanzees who sometimes kill intruders from a different clan), they might be subject to more stress even though it doesn’t result in moving out of the area.  In order to determine these more subtle impacts, they recommend looking at factors such as changes in breeding success and physiological stress indicators such as hormone changes.

Recommendations for Wildlife Monitoring in Uganda

Based on this article as well as other sources, here are a few important things for the monitoring bodies to be looking at in terms of the impacts of oil development on wildlife that might not be getting attention yet:

  • Besides looking at large movement patterns out of an area, look at daily patterns to see if animals are shifting their activities from daytime to nighttime to avoid the periods when people are most active in the drilling sites.
  • When/if drilling activities move into areas near forests with chimpanzees, monitor for increased conflicts or mortality that might be caused by individuals getting forced into a rival’s territory.
  • For animals that don’t leave the area as oil activity increases, check for increased stress hormones or a decrease in breeding success.
  • Look for changes in communication between elephant family members.  Much of their long-distance communication (sometimes over 10 kilometers) happens through the ground, so the vibrations from oil activities could interfere with elephants’ sub-sonic communication.

Uganda Needs More Data

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is a serious lack of reliable data about the wildlife in the national parks here.  It is unfortunate that many of the observations of behavior patterns are just being conducted now, after oil exploration has already started.  There are many committed people who will do their best to gather baseline data, but frankly there just isn’t time to get solid data since it takes a number of years to account for annual changes in rainfall, cycles of breeding success, etc.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind, though, is that even with the best data in the world, Environmental Impact Assessments, monitoring protocols and environmental regulations are only as strong as the will to enforce them.  Ultimately, none of it matters if the government cares more about the oil money than it does about protecting the environment the citizens depend on.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

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6 10 2010
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5 10 2010
Charles

Hi,
I am just back from Uganda, and three days in Murchison National Park. I was fortunate to have one of the very best guides, and we saw plentiful amazing wildlife. The main impact I saw was about 6 to 8 “Road Closed” signs across tracks I’d driven in the past. These “Road Closed” roads seemed to cover a large area. What is going on behind the signs? How much transparency is there to find out?

Thanks for the great job,
Charles

7 10 2010
Mark Jordahl

Glad you made it home safely, Charles! It is not an easy process to get in to see the sites. Letter to the Permanent Secretary and the Commissioner of the Petroleum Exploration and Production Department to get written permission which then goes to Tullow for them to make arrangements for a visit. Haven’t yet tried the process myself, but it might be an interesting blog post in itself!

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