Murchison Falls Continues to be Museveni’s Punching Bag (or Punchline)

23 11 2010

Golfing and Wildlife don't Mix

Can this really be happening? In another blow to the survival of Murchison Falls National Park, President Museveni is demanding that the Madhvani Group, the owners of Paraa and Chobe Lodges, be allowed to build a golf course within the park.  Clearly he does not take the concept of “National Park” seriously.

I think building a Wal-Mart or a 24-hour Nakumatt at the Top of the Falls would be a reasonable next step.

First, let’s address the fact that Museveni is really in no position to make this call, either legally or in terms of his ability to assess the impacts of a project like this.  He is quoted as saying Golf has no fumes. It is not a factory to generate fumes, it is just grass. This must be resolved. Tell UWA that I want this to be done.”

He has absolutely no environmental credentials, and there are, theoretically, laws that a development like this should have to follow (for instance, undergoing one of those pesky Environmental Impact Assessments).  It should also be a decision made by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, not by decree of the president.  If the president is able to just sidestep constitutional process whenever it is convenient for him, that is a sign of a broken political and legal system.

While there are efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of golf courses in countries with strict environmental oversight, unregulated courses are notoriously polluting.  The chemicals used to maintain the “perfect” grass have contaminated water sources around the world.  I don’t know where in the park the Madhvanis plan to build this course, but my guess is that they will want a view of the river,  which means there is a high likelihood of chemical runoff into the Nile.  There is also the issue of irrigating the entire course during the dry season, presumably with water from the river.

Building a golf course in Murchison Falls National Park will also result in yet another area of the park where the wildlife, the main reason for the existence of the park, will not be welcome.  As oil development expands into the production phase, the wildlife will already be feeling pressured as the open habitat shrinks.

The Madhvanis requested permission to build a golf course in Queen Elizabeth National Park sometime back, but were turned down by the Uganda Wildlife Authority because of the impact it would have on wildlife.  The current, questionably-appointed Acting Executive Director of UWA, Mark Kamanzi, has apparently agreed to the current proposal, saying “There’s nothing wrong with the President allowing a golf course to be built in the park. It does not mean that the land has been given away.” It is important to note that, like President Museveni, Mark Kamanzi has no environmental credentials – he is a lawyer who was moved into the position of Executive Director by the Board that was recently disbanded.

Uganda’s natural assets should not be sold off to the highest bidder.  The national parks here have the highest level of protection of any blocks of land in the country.  If even that level of protection can’t keep these places safe, what does that mean for the rest of the remaining forests and other natural lands?  Ugandans successfully fought to keep Museveni from selling off part of Mabira Forest, but they shouldn’t have to continually fight to save places that are already legally protected.

It will be a sad day if Uganda’s National Parks become little more than a National Joke.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala


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

UWA Leadership Exonerated by Parliament

5 11 2010

Image of Moses Mapesa from

It seems that the Ugandan Parliament has seen through the motives of the new Uganda Wildlife Authority board and condemned them for trying to get at the funds held by UWA in its various accounts.  I have written about the questionable actions of the board here, here, and here.

Hopefully this will put a welcome brake on the precipitous actions of the new Uganda Wildlife Authority board of directors. An article in today’s issue of The Monitor, titled MP’s Dismiss Otifiire’s Report on Wildlife Agency, opens with the line “MPs have said the sacking of the Executive Director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Mr Moses Mapesa, is part of a wider scheme by some members of the agency’s board and some top officials in the Tourism Ministry to swindle money.”

For people within the Wildlife Authority, it has been clear for a while that the ultimate target of the new board is the Wildlife Authority’s accounts, particularly money that has been set aside to create a trust fund to support the operations in the parks.

This attack on the part of the Minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry, General Kahinda Otifiire, and his appointee Dr. Muballe, comes at a time when the parks in Uganda are particularly vulnerable.  Oil exploration is expanding in many of the national parks here, and a breakdown in the management of the Uganda Wildlife Authority would eliminate any last resistance to uncontrolled drilling in the parks.

Hopefully this ruling  by the Members of Parliament will lead to the reappointment of Moses Mapesa and a strengthening of the power of the Uganda Wildlife Authority to resist attacks on the National Parks regardless of the source of those attacks.

Read the rest of the article here:  MP’s Dismiss Otifiire’s Report on Wildlife Agency

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Spitting Fight between Nagenda and Otafiire

25 10 2010

The mess at Uganda Wildlife Authority seems to have taken a more personal twist lately, with volleys in the press between Presidential Media Advisor John Nagenda and Minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry, General Kahinda Otafiire.

In a recent article in the New Vision, Nagenda refers to Dr. Muballe, who Otafiire appointed as Chair of the UWA board, as “a monster daily devouring its own children.”

In another article a month ago, Otafiire threatened Nagenda saying “Nagenda cannot insult us like that. It is fine to insult me. I will hit back at him at a given time somewhere else.”

This personal battle runs the risk of deflecting attention from what is still going on within Uganda Wildlife Authority.  Staffers at headquarters never know from day-to-day if they will keep their jobs, and are working in an atmosphere of mistrust, where they believe people are looking through their things at night, and that their communications are being monitored.

Much of the fear comes from the fact that the dismissals can appear capricious, as the true motivations behind them are unclear.  There was a recent audit of the Friend-a-Gorilla campaign which purportedly unearthed corruption and misuse of funds.  I have not seen the report, but I have heard from people I trust within UWA that the money raised by the campaign is all accounted for, and that the variety of bank accounts is the result of PayPal not being able to deposit funds into a Ugandan account.

I have also done some research into the costs of developing a commercial website, and the $65,000 is in line with what should be expected for an international-standard website with the complexity of the Friend-a-Gorilla site with e-commerce and social networking.  Sure, websites can be done cheaper, but the goal of the Friend-a-Gorilla campaign was to put Uganda on the world scene, and you don’t want to do that with a cheesy, $1,000 website.

Granted, the campaign has not been as successful as was hoped, but that does not mean that the process was corrupt.  Also, what many people don’t remember is that this campaign was launched right after the Kampala riots in fall of 2009.  There were a few weeks where every piece of news about Uganda in the international press was about the riots.  Then along came the Friend-a-Gorilla campaign and suddenly the world’s focus on Uganda shifted to a positive story.  How much would Uganda have had to pay for a PR campaign to turn around its international image in such a short period of time?

I am very concerned about the future of the parks in Uganda.  The actions that are being taken by the new UWA board are significant, and they are being done at a speed that does not allow for proper examination of each step.  I find it interesting that Nagenda is taking such an active role and can only hope it is a sign that the top leadership in the country also has concerns about how things are being handled at UWA.

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

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

The Expat/Ugandan Dynamic

27 08 2010

My recent post, The Plot Thickens at Uganda Wildlife Authority, drew two interesting comments from Dr. Muballe, the new chair of the Board of Directors at UWA.  In his more agitated comment he wasn’t actually responding to anything I wrote, but to a comment left by Wolfgang Thome, who has written openly about his criticisms of the new board’s actions on his own website and in his articles at eTurboNews.  However, since both comments were left on my site, I figure it is fair for me to write about the thoughts his comments provoked for me.

First, the mild one:

“Trust me on this the motive of the new BoT of UWA is noble. The proof in the pudding is the outcome of the ongoing forensic Audit. If the motive was less than noble why Audit UWA.

If it help you understand UWA whose Annual budget is approximatelys$15,000,000 runs 20 accounts in 5 different banks. Does that make economic sense.

Kindly give us time to prove our worth. Not all that comes out of Uganda is Corrupt. There are many honest ugandans who truelly wish to see the country Grow. If at any stage the temptation to be corrupted afflicts me then be assured i shall resign.  Pro deum et Patrium.”

In his favor here, I must agree that it is a little ridiculous to have 20 accounts in 5 banks for a relatively small budget.  That is a perfect set-up for corruption, as it is difficult to monitor expenses in so many accounts, and I can only imagine the convoluted signing-authority arrangements for retrieving money from any of those accounts.  Part of the “proof in the pudding” on this one will be how they try to restructure this.  Who will have signing authority for the new, condensed accounts?  While the finance committee of a board needs to have the ability to review the accounts of the organization they oversee, they should never have the ability to actually access the funds.  By suspending everyone with signing authority, the road was open to have the Board be the only signatories.  Now that the court has re-instated the Executive, that road is not so clear.

They will assuredly have time to prove their worth.  So far, though, the road is already bumpy.  Their dismissals of the Executive Director and the Director of Conservation have been overturned, and when Dr. Muballe was called to speak to Parliament he did not appear.  The Monitor, the independent newspaper in Uganda, has also reported unprecedented fees being paid to the new board under Dr. Muballe in “Wildfire Consumes Wildlife Authority:”

Members of the previous UWA board, headed by city lawyer Andrew Kasirye, received a monthly retainer of Shs700,000 and a sitting allowance of Shs103,000.

However, Dr Muballe now receives a monthly retainer of Shs2m [$1,000] and a sitting allowance of Shs300,000 [$150 per meeting]. Other board members have a monthly retainer of Shs1.5m and a sitting allowance of Shs250,000.

Travel and night allowances have also been doubled to $200 (about Shs400,000) for the chairman and $150 (about Shs300,000) for members.

The new board has also approved new allowances and benefits to its members with Dr Muballe receiving a monthly allocation of 200 litres of fuel [worth about $250 – $300], Shs200,000 [$100] for airtime, and an entertainment allowance of Shs1m [$500].”

Pretty sweet packages, I must say, particularly for the board of an underfunded government agency where a single sitting allowance would be a good monthly salary for many of the employees.  And for those of you reading this outside of Uganda, a “sitting allowance” is basically extra money that you have to pay higher-level people here to do their jobs.  If you need somebody from the Health Ministry to come see a project at a health center, you have to pay them extra to get them to leave their desk.

There are also questions around how the new board was selected, as most of them have no conservation or wildlife experience and some had never even been to the parks before joining the board.  Dr. Muballe was the personal physician to the Minister of Trade and Tourism, who appointed him to the post.

His next comment, directed towards Wolfgang Thome, is a bit spicier:

Mr Wolfgang,

you have judged us with inadequate information. kindly prepare your apology in 30 days time. YOUR EUROCENTRIC ATTITUDE SHALL BE PUT TO SHAME. BY THE WAY SOME OF THE CORRUPTERS OF UWA OFFICIALS ARE GERMANS. if i gave you evidence to the effect could you help bring them to book?

Have a nice week.

aluta comtinua, victoria ecerta. We have declare war on corruption if you believe in transperancy help us prosecute these corrupt europeans as well.

Just for context, Wolfgang has been in Uganda for twenty years, is married to a Ugandan woman, and is set to live the rest of his life here.  He is clearly committed to this country, and probably has stronger ties here than he does back in Germany.  I’m not exactly sure what Dr. Muballe saw as “Eurocentric” in Wolfgang’s comment or his other writings.  He has been openly supportive of Moses Mapesa, who is a Ugandan, since this issue first started making headlines, and much of what he has written has been based on evidence that has come out through investigations by local, Ugandan reporters.  It is easy to avoid addressing the issues directly when you simply write-off your critics as “outsiders.”

Muballe’s comment, however, brings up a deeper issue.  There is a push-pull in Uganda between two opposing attitudes.  One, expressed here by Dr. Muballe, is essentially “Who do you mzungus think you are, telling us how to run our country?”  The other was expressed by a young man I met in a village last weekend who said to a group of us “Maybe we could sit down together and you could tell us how to organize our lives.”

Neither of these attitudes is healthy or appropriate.  Westerners have a role to play here just as Africans have a role to play in the United States or in Europe.  It is the unique blend of perspectives, experiences and gifts that different people bring to the table that make a country strong.

I do think there is a sense of entitlement on the part of many donor countries to have a say in the workings of Uganda, particularly due to the fact that a third of the national budget is direct support from international donors.  Compounding this is the fact that Uganda is actually moving backwards on the Corruption Perceptions Index created by Transparency International.  The Freedom House Country Report on Uganda also shows Uganda’s rating dropping over the last 4 years in the categories of Accountability and Public Voice, Rule of Law, and Anticorruption and Transparency.  The Civil Liberties category was the only one in which an improvement was seen.  So while Muballe is certainly correct that “not all that comes out of Uganda is corrupt,” it is impossible to ignore the fact that corruption is widespread here.  The cards are also very much stacked against those people, be they Ugandan or foreign, who want to steer clear of corruption.  That said, it is a delicate and awkward balance between “investors” having a say in their investment and a nation having sovereignty.

The frustration for me is that I don’t see Uganda as a poor country, or at least not as a country that needs to be poor.  The land here is extremely fertile, there is a growing business sector, recently discovered sources of oil, other minerals, and an English-speaking population, which makes it easier for Ugandans to interact with the global business community.  The human and natural resources are here.  What seems to be lacking is leadership that is committed to serving the people first, and themselves second.  Uganda could be a virtual paradise if the money that was allocated to strengthen it was used for that purpose.

Ugandan law does provide for both the bribe payer and the payee to be prosecuted.  It will be interesting to see what happens if this is enforced.  Will there be economic stagnation if authorities refuse to allow business activity without receiving a bribe but the businesses won’t pay the bribe due to fear of reprisal?

Donor countries do have a role to play in pressing for more transparency in the governments they support.  However, it must be remembered that those countries (and individuals working in the aid industry) have a vested interest in continuing to provide funding.  I think it is pretty rare for donors to follow through on any threats to reduce funding as a penalty for corruption.

The other side of this equation, the one expressed by the young man in the village, is also off-base.  None of us in the group knew anything about him, yet he thought we could help him “organize his life” simply because we are mzungus.  I believe that for some, there is a tendency to assume we mzungus bring more to the table than we actually do.  There are always pitfalls in making assumptions about entire groups of people, whether those assumptions are positive or negative.  As with anybody else, each mzungu here has some skills and lacks others, has certain positive character traits and certain negative ones.  I have enough trouble keeping my own life on track – I certainly don’t feel qualified to tell anybody else how to “organize” theirs.

So how do we move towards a healthier, more realistic relationship between western expatriates and Ugandans?  Reducing the wealth gap is an important step.  Improving the education system here to get it on-par with international standards is another.  But these are long-term undertakings.  Is there a way, in the meantime, to get people to look at each other as individuals, with unique strengths and weaknesses, no matter what their skin color or nationality might be?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala