Impact of Oil Development on Wildlife Not Always Obvious

5 10 2010

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


Rothschild’s Giraffe Now Listed as Endangered Species

31 08 2010
Rothschild's Giraffe

Image of Rothschild's Giraffe in Murchison Falls NP

The giraffe must be one of the unlikeliest animals on the planet.  They are frequently cited as evidence that “God” or “nature” has a sense of humor.

They can be over 5 meters tall, weigh nearly two tons, and have a 45cm tongue that allows them to pluck tiny acacia leaves out from a fortress of thorns.  They have the largest heart of any land mammal, along with specially valved arteries, providing the strong plumbing system needed to get blood all the way up to their towering heads.

Despite their weirdness, or perhaps because of it, few animals scream “Africa” the way giraffes do.  There are nine subspecies of giraffe in Africa, two of which are now listed as endangered by the IUCN.  According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, in their press release titled “Rothschild’s giraffe joins list of species threatened by extinction,” the number of Rothschild’s giraffe left in the wild is now under 670.

Young Rothschild's Giraffe

Image: Young Rothschild's Giraffe, Murchison Falls NP

This means that nearly half of the remaining wild members of this endangered species call Murchison Falls National Park their home.

Endangered Giraffes and Oil

A listing on the IUCN Red List compels governments to try to help keep a species alive.  Will this bring a more critical eye to the oil development that is rapidly expanding in some of the best habitat for these animals?

Giraffes are not subtle animals.  If they are pushed out of the national parks, it’s not like they can hide out in small forest fragments tucked between villages.  Their habitat needs are very specific, which is why their range and distribution are so limited, and why Murchison Falls is the only national park in Uganda where they exist in significant numbers.

The Role of National Parks

One of the main purposes of national parks is to preserve critical habitats for species that can’t survive in a mostly human-altered environment.  Once a species becomes listed as endangered, it means that they are already feeling the pinch and that they could very well be heading for extinction if their remaining habitat is not protected.

Nobody knows yet how any of the animals in the parks will respond to increased oil activity.  When I was at Murchison Falls two weeks ago, the place was crawling with survey crews driving off-track, cutting new tracks, laying cables across the roads, tying survey tape to trees, and filling up the ferry.  There was a sense of bustle that is not consistent with my view of a national park experience, and this is just the survey crews.

Maybe the giraffes will look at the tall, spindly drilling rigs and see a distant cousin.  Maybe they will feel more at home than ever.  But maybe they will think it is time to move on.  I hope not, because they really have nowhere else to go.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Timeline for the Tullow/Heritage Oil Debacle

28 08 2010

Here is a link to a useful summary of the ongoing oil saga, and the convolutions of the sale of Heritage’s claim in Uganda to Tullow Oil.  I have found it very useful to have the information collected here in one place:

Imagine a scenario, where a major oil company purchases the assets of another, pays close to 1.5 billion US Dollars for this purchase and only then finds out that their transaction has failed to gain the mandatory regulatory approvals. Impossible you may think but true enough for Tullow Oil of Uganda.

The timeline attached to this article will outline in what sequence events did take place, but meanwhile, government has used its powers to approve, or else decline approvals, to exert pressure over a tax claim made against Heritage stemming from the sale of the assets.

via Breaking News from Uganda’s oil sector « Wolfganghthome’s Blog.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala Uganda: ‘Top Govt Officials Are Scrambling for Oil Land’

25 06 2010

I have been hearing rumors about this, but this article seems to confirm that government officials, with insider information about potential oil well sites in Uganda, are buying up land in the oil-rich Albertine Rift: Uganda: ‘Top Govt Officials Are Scrambling for Oil Land’.

This is yet one more indication that Uganda will need to be watched closely to prevent this country from being destroyed by the discovery of oil.  There is the potential for oil to be a great boon to the people of Uganda, but there are a lot of powerful people who are seeing it as a great boon to their offshore bank accounts.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Really? Seriously?!?

2 06 2010

Uganda just signed an “oil co-operation pact” with Nigeria.  This is like asking China to help develop your human rights policy.  In my mind, the final nail is in the coffin of any hope that the new-found oil wealth here will be used for the benefit of the people of this country (well, actually, a few people will benefit a whole lot).

Nigeria is widely recognized as a model for how to do everything wrong in oil development.  Billions of dollars in revenues have been siphoned off by Nigeria’s leaders (perhaps $380 billion out of $400 billion earned since independence according to Wangari Maathai),  fisheries have been destroyed in the wetland areas where they extract the oil, and so much social unrest and inequality has been created that there are armed militias attacking the oil infrastructure.

Isn’t there somebody else, anybody else that Uganda could go to for guidance?  Please?

Further Reading:

New Vision Online : Uganda, Nigeria sign oil co-operation pact

Happy information about the history of oil in Nigeria

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

A longer oil timeline for Uganda

1 06 2010

Article from The East African:

Tullow far from earning petrodollars for Uganda and EA

A worker checks machinery and pipelines for oil production. Uganda  and other East African countries are yet to enjoy petrodollars  earnings. File Photo

A worker checks machinery and pipelines for oil production. Uganda and other East African countries are yet to enjoy petrodollars earnings. File Photo

By Michael Wakabi  (email the author)

Posted Monday, May 31 2010 at 00:00

Uganda and East Africa may have to wait a little longer for petro-dollars from Uganda’s extensive oil fields as it emerges that major oil production is unlikely to commence until at least 2014/15.

Even then, the plan remains largely fluid as major elements of the programme design are yet to be completed and agreed on with Ugandan authorities.

Current estimates put the potential in Uganda’s Albertine Rift between 1.5 and two billion barrels of oil and just over 800 million barrels of these have been confirmed.

Two operators, Tullow and Heritage Oil, that have been conducting a joint exploration programme in the area, are the custodians of these finds.

Limited scope

Although Tullow had variously mentioned 2010 as a possible date for first oil production, it turns out this will be very limited in scope and targets power production from gas finds in the area and a topping plant for heavy fuel oil.

In private conversations, observers have cast doubt on the viability of Tullow’s pronouncements, pointing out that the company has not announced any practical steps geared towards commercial extraction of Uganda’s crude.

Even if the oil were brought to the surface, given the remote location of the oil fields, it would also require substantial investment in infrastructure, none of which is likely to be in place in the next three to five years.

“Tullow has made it clear that it envisages small-scale first oil production in 2010, first gas production and power and first commercial oil production by late 2011 and major production 2014 and 2015.

Read the rest of the article here.

A Thought for Beauty

19 05 2010

Kidepo Valley Morning

“We should do our utmost to encourage the Beautiful, for the Useful encourages itself.”
–  Goethe

It seems callous to talk about the value of beauty in a country where so many are struggling just to survive.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs rules out appreciation of beauty until a person’s more basic needs (food, water, shelter) are satisfied.  However, how long can you wait to focus on preserving beauty until it is all gone?

Writing in the 1970’s, Freeman Tilden, the “father” of National Park interpretation in the United States, could have been sending a warning to the Uganda of today.  He saw the natural beauty of the country in decline.  In an essay titled Vistas of Beauty, he pointed out that “we know what ugliness is, and the processes that create it.  In the haste to gain material welfare we have forgotten, or chosen to forget; and the bill has now come due.”

Uganda is proud of its natural beauty.  Catch phrases like “Pearl of Africa” and “Gifted by Nature” give voice to this pride.  But is Uganda forgetting its natural heritage in its “haste to gain material welfare?”  Allowing oil development in the National Parks is in direct contradiction to the whole purpose of having a national park.  The visions of wealth are blurring the visions of beauty.  Both inside and outside the park boundaries, the face of Uganda is about to change dramatically, and I wonder if people are thinking about the deeper psychological results those changes will bring.

Oil is useful.  Therefore, if Goethe is correct, it will “encourage itself” and doesn’t need outspoken advocates.  Beauty, however, needs voices speaking loud and clear from the rooftops to remind people that it has value, too, and that it is under assault.

“…our preserved places of natural beauty and memorials of the historic past [can’t] prosper and remain inspirational if they become islands in an environment of sanctioned ugliness.”

The proponents of oil development in Uganda’s national parks argue that the potential benefits of the oil revenues outweigh any negative impacts on wildlife, tourism, or the communities in the areas where the drilling is happening.  The concept of loss of beauty never even makes it into the conversation.  Should it?  Does beauty have value in this equation?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala