Uganda’s Mountain Parks Might Be the Last Refuge in a Changed Climate

19 11 2010
Rwenzori Mountains

Rwenzori Mountains from Queen Elizabeth NP

The Rwenzori Mountains and Mount Elgon, the bookends of Uganda, may provide a last bastion for biodiversity in Uganda in a changing climate.  While these mountainous national parks get fewer visitors and fewer conservation dollars than the savanna parks and gorilla parks with their charismatic wildlife, they might turn out to be the most important ones to protect.

Global Warming” Is A Distraction

Most people know by now that “Global Warming” is an unfortunate misnomer, giving ammunition to climate change deniers who say “yeah, but my backyard has gotten .06 degrees cooler on average over the last six months.”

The reality is that some places will get colder, some will get warmer, some will get wetter and some will get dryer.  There is a very complex dynamic that determines our climate, which is why scientists look at the “big picture” rather than just localized information.

Likewise, climate change will not impact all species equally.  My unscientific guess is that coyotes and cockroaches will do fine in a changing climate, just like they always do.  They are incredibly adaptive generalists, they are mobile, they delight in popping up wherever people least expect them, and coyotes, at least, breed more rapidly under stress.  Very few governments will need to invest in a Cockroach Conservation Strategy.

Wildlife Will Need Options in a Changing Climate

But what about species like plants that are less mobile, or animals that have more specific habitat needs?  For those species, it is important to have a variety of climate conditions in a concentrated area so that they can find a suitable place to live.  In a flat expanse of land, it might be many miles before you reach a different temperature or vegetation zone.  On a mountain, however, moving just a few feet could completely change your reality.

Mt. Elgon

Mountains have possibly the widest variance of ecosystems per square kilometer of any landscape.  Not only are there extreme temperature differences resulting from altitudinal change, but the angle of a slope and its exposure to the sun can make one spot completely different from another just around the corner.  A crevice in a rock can provide protection from winds that make the surface of the very same rock uninhabitable.  Snowpack on a protected slope can insulate plants and trees that would freeze solid on a slope that gets blown clean during the winter.

According to a recent study done in the Swiss Alps, “alpine terrain is for the majority of species a much ‘safer’ place to live under conditions of climate warming, compared to flat terrain which offers no short-distance escapes from the changing temperatures.”

The Human Factor

As the lower elevations in Uganda become hotter and dryer, and thus less suitable for agriculture, humans will also begin to move to find better habitat.  Our legendary mobility will always give us an advantage over the other species that are trying to relocate (except, of course, the cockroach which will be there waiting for us).

With Uganda’s population projected to exceed 100 million by 2050 (nearly tripling the current 32-34 million), there will be incredible pressure on every square inch of arable land.  If there is going to be any space left for maintaining the biological diversity of this country, we need to be sure the mountain parks in Uganda are receiving the attention and funding they deserve.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala


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

Talking About Race with Kids

24 09 2010

Three Musketeers

Three Friends

White people over there!  Black people over there!”

My wife and I stared at each other in horror as our then-3 1/2-year-old son stood on his chair and shouted this during a dinner we were hosting for a group of Ugandan and ex-pat friends.

The girl next door, a 6 year old from Zimbabwe, had been learning about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States at her school.  As the older and wiser of the two, she often plays the role of “teacher” when they are together in the afternoons.  Apparently on this day she had been teaching him about segregation, and he was sharing with us what he had learned.  Can you say “awkward?”

When we moved to Uganda in 2008, our son was 2 ½ years old and seemed to have no awareness of skin color or, really, of the fact that Uganda is a different place from America at all.  Even though there were very few mzungu kids in his school, we never heard him talk about being different, or show any awareness of the fact that most people around us on a daily basis are black and that we aren’t.

About six months later, he came home from school talking about “the black kid.”  We thought “ok – honeymoon’s over.  Now we’re going to have to figure out how to talk about this with him.”  But then moments later he started talking about “the blue kid” and “the red kid” and we realized he was referring to the clothes the other kids in his school were wearing.  Whew.  Dodged the bullet for a little while longer.

Then came the dinner party.

Not surprisingly, our Ugandan friends just laughed.  I say “not surprisingly” because here in Uganda, you call it like you see it.  Some people are black, some people are white, some are fat, some are skinny, and somebody with one leg is known as “the guy with one leg.”  You frequently hear Ugandans say “you white people are like this” or “we blacks are like this.”  It’s not like in the United States, where we all try to pretend we don’t notice differences between us, and where we will twist ourselves into all kinds of verbal contortions to avoid mentioning that someone is black/fat/disabled/whatever:

Person 1:  “Excuse me, do you know if Jim is in today?”
Person 2:  “Who’s Jim?”
Person 1:  “Oh, you know, he’s about 5’8”, usually wears a sweater, has longish, shortish hair and a beard and mustache.”
Person 2:  “Hmmm, I know a few guys like that here.  Can you be more specific?”
Person 1:  “Well, he’s worked here for about six months, has a blue coffee mug, and always reads a book in the break room at lunch.”
Person 2 (wants to say):  “Oh yeah – do you mean the only black guy who works here?  It would’ve been easier if you had just said that!”

Not that we should become known strictly by one aspect of who we are but, interestingly, we don’t have the same issues with using some physical descriptors, like “the woman with the really long, blond hair.”

We Need to Talk About Race

A recent article in Newsweek, See Baby Discriminate, makes me wonder if our son really hadn’t noticed skin color before, or if his “lesson” with his friend just finally gave him the language and permission to talk about it – an opportunity and framework that we hadn’t given him because we were waiting for it to come up (and on some level probably hoping it wouldn’t).

The take-home lesson of the article, written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman, is that kids develop racial awareness earlier than we expect, and that there is no substitute for explicit conversations about it (as opposed to vague platitudes like “everyone is equal”) very early in their development.

The first study that the authors looked at was done in Austin, in 2006, by Birgitte Vittrup of the University of Texas.  Vittrup wanted to see if there was a change in kids’ racial attitudes after watching multi-cultural themed videos, watching videos with accompanying guided discussions with parents, and participating in race discussions without the videos.  She selected 100 Caucasian families from the Austin area (a liberal bastion within Texas) who had kids between the ages of 5 and 7 and divided them into the three study groups.

The first thing she found was that most of these families just plain didn’t want to talk directly about race issues, and many either dropped out of the study or had conversations that were too vague for their kids to really get the point.  According to Bronson and Merryman, “Of all those Vittrup told to talk openly about interracial friendship, only six families managed to actually do so.  And, for all six, their children dramatically improved their racial attitudes in a single week.”

This finding is significant given that, according to a Journal of Marriage and Family article, 75% of white families “never, or almost never, talk about race.”

Kids Notice Color

Yesterday, as I was giving my son a bath, he sorted all of his bath toys by color along the edges of the tub.  Is there any reason to think they don’t do the same thing with people?

Referring to findings by another researcher, Rebecca Bigler, Bronson and Merryman state that “kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own.  Children naturally try to categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.”  This was seen even when different shirt colors were randomly assigned.  They also cited studies showing that 86% of white 3-year-old children show preference for white friends, and that by third grade, it might already be too late to reshape attitudes.

Diverse Environments Don’t Necessarily Engender Racial Equality

Perhaps the finding in this article that surprised me the most is that integrated school environments might actually increase racial segregation socially.  This goes against the prevailing view that kids who are raised in diverse school environments are more likely to have inter-racial friendships and see other races as equal, something the authors call the “Diverse Environment Theory.”

A study done by James Moody from Duke University on 90,000 teenagers at 112 different schools found that “the more diverse the school, the more the kids self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school, and thus the likelihood that any two kids of different races have a friendship goes down.”  Only 8% of white American teens have a best friend of a different race.

We have just assumed that by raising our son in Africa he will develop a feeling of equality with people of other races because that is who he interacts with the most every day, and that he will somehow not really feel that there is any difference between him and the other kids around him.  This article shows that we might be very wrong about that.

If you ask him who his best friend is in Uganda, he names the girl next door, who is black.  However, if you ask him who his best friend at school is, where most of the other students and all of the teachers are black, he will usually name the girl who is the only other white kid in his class.

My wife and I originally wanted to believe that it was because the two of them transferred together from their old school so they had more history with each other, but I really think it has to do more with this desire to categorize, and Bigler’s finding that “kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.”  He and she notice that they are similar to each other in a very obvious way, and this draws them to want to form a group in the same way that my son’s bath toys “belong” in groupings of red, blue, green and yellow.

Lessons Learned

I don’t think it is bad that he has formed this bond with his friend at school.  He plays with all the other kids, loves his teachers, and the girl next door is like his sister.  While it is obvious that he is becoming more aware of the differences between himself and so many of the people he sees around him, I don’t notice any type of value judgment.  Different, to him, does not mean better or worse.

But if what this article says is true, we need to get busy and make sure that we don’t leave a vacuum to be filled regarding what those differences mean.  We can’t just expect that living here in this environment will lead to him believing that everyone is equal.  We can’t even expect our own attitudes about equality to magically transfer to him, not least because we might have unconscious bias that we aren’t even aware of, but that he picks up through subtle behaviors.  We need to be clear and explicit with him about our belief that different races are equal and that discrimination is not acceptable.  And we need to start having these conversations…ummm…about a year and a half ago.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Why People Don’t Like Scientists

27 02 2010

“Our results raise the possibility that spontaneous string pulling in New Caledonian crows may not be based on insight but on operant conditioning mediated by a perceptual-motor feedback cycle.”

This is from a behavioral study on the problem-solving abilities of crows.  Sounds impressive, right?  Do you have any idea what it means?  I didn’t either, until I read science journalist Brandon Keim’s translation: “In other words, the crows relied on a simple trial-and-error approach.”

Now, that’s something I can get my head around.  Why didn’t they just say that?

In an earlier post, I talked about the need for conservation groups to inspire people in order to increase support.  The same thing applies to science in general.  A lot of this type of research is funded by public money, so shouldn’t the scientists want the public to be interested in their results?

As an educator with a focus on nature and ecology, I want people to say “ooh, wow, fascinating!” when new information comes out about the natural world.  Too often, studies like this come out that are more likely to result in people saying “ugh, science sure is dry and boring.”  Come on, people – if something is interesting enough to do a study about, give us something afterwards to say “wow!” about.

I suppose it is good way to keep science journalists like Keim employed, so let’s hope that these research grants always come with funding for translation!