EACOP: Oil at home: wildlife at Murchison Falls National Park threatened to be climate migrants

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: EACOP: A boon or curse for East Africa?

By Soraya Aybar Laafou, David Soler, Pablo Garrigós

Posted on Monday, 14 November 2022 13:33
Three Rothschild giraffes walk through the Murchison Falls National Park where 31 drilling areas and several dozen oil wells will be built on 13 October 2022. Murchison Falls is the only place in the world where this specie of giraffe has survived without being reintroduced by humans. The Tilenga’s drilling pads will directly affect the movements of these endangered animals across the protected area as they will split in two the migration movements of the local communities. (photo: Pablo Garrigós )

The building is filled up to the top with mountains of wheel traps, snares and spears. A handful of elephant tusks in a small closet next door are kept as proof that poaching still is a major threat at Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park.

This is part 3 of a 7-part series

However, now there is a means to fight poaching. “Ten years ago, there was nothing: only a small hut, a couple of rangers and no cars,” says Michael Keigwin, founder of the Uganda Conservation Foundation.

His organisation has been working for the last decade to build the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s capacity to monitor the park.  Today, there are around 200 rangers at the park, but he says that number is not enough.

“We would need at least two or three times more [rangers] to cover the park well [and] we only have one veterinarian,” he tells The Africa Report from the Joint Operations and Command Centre, a facility built two years ago that integrates everything from an intelligence office up to a police station and cells.

Keigwin speaks up as, a few metres away, the sound of trucks raises a cloud of dust. A paved route is under construction. It will connect with the new Paraa Bridge, a six-lane tarmacked road, which is a dream for tourists, but a nightmare for animals.

One of the roads that have been widened and paved to serve the drilling areas and oil wells will be built along the Murchison Falls National Park on 13 May 2022. The guards of this protected area strongly criticise the project for several reasons, among them, the increase in car accidents with wildlife, which is almost daily (photo: Pablo Garrigós ).

Since February this year, travelling from the south to the northern part of the Murchison Falls Conservation Area, which has the highest animal density area, has been made more convenient, yet animals have borne the brunt of easier access. “At least every day you find an animal knocked on the road. It is so smooth that cars don’t ride at the 40km/h limit,” says a ranger on condition of anonymity. “The world they’re seeing and growing on is very strange.”

Even though developers argue that road developments will boost tourism, pickups will share space with oil trucks moving through the park. “Both industries can coexist,” says the UCF founder. “But they have mixed the oil roads and tourism, all go through the same place and that will generate greater visual impact”.

They should have concentrated on the oil outside the park and left what is inside the park

At Murchison Falls National Park, Total Energies is developing the Tilenga project which plans a total of 31 oil wells, with 10 of those being on the northern side where most animals live. “They should have concentrated on the oil outside the park and left what is inside the park,” the ranger says.

The park holds 83% of the oil reserves on the Ugandan side of Lake Albert, which will see about 204,000 barrels a day at maximum capacity connected via a feeder pipeline to be exported through the East African Oil Pipeline (EACOP).

In its Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Total Energies argues that the project will only affect 1% of the park and follows best industry practices, but external organisations reject this argument. According to a report by American NGO E-Tech International, the wells could be reduced from 10 to only one inside the park through extended-reach drilling techniques, minimising the impact.

Total Energies has opted for cheaper and more efficient techniques and plans to bury the pipeline that will transport oil outside of Tilenga, which would enable vegetation to grow. The report argues that instead of 30 metres wide it could be reduced to 10 metres in critical areas inside the park, reducing its impact. At the time of publishing this article, Total had not responded to a request for an interview with The Africa Report.

The effect on elephants, key for the ecosystem

Across Murchison Falls National Park there are 76 different mammals, including the ‘big five’. Although all are important for the park, elephants are considered to be the “ecosystem engineers”, according to rangers.

They help turn the savannah into a forest and vice versa by breaking through tree branches and also help with reforestation by dropping the seeds of the fruits they feed on.

Back in 1960, the park had a population of about 15,000 elephants. Still, conflict with Tanzania during the Idi Amin era and the expansion of the terrorist group Lord Resistance Army decimated conservation efforts, lowering this number to just 200 by 1995. After decades of conservation efforts, the park holds a population of around 2,700 according to the 2019 census.

A savanna elephant eats with his herd in the area of ​​Murchison Falls National Park affected by the construction of the 31 drilling sites by Total Energies on 17 October 2022. A scientific study has shown that projects like Tilenga could have a direct impact on the conservation of these mammals by moving them 1,25 kilometres away from oil wells during construction and 40 square kilometres when drilling. African Savanna Elephant is an endangered species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). (photo: Pablo Garrigós )

Oil developments could put a halt to the population growth of elephants. “Animals fear the noise and vibration, so they will go far away and look for where they think that it’s a bit quieter,” says the ranger. The growth and recovery rates are very low for elephants when compared to other animals, as females have only one calf every nine years. Rangers at the park fear that oil developments will isolate animals as they move away and avoid crossing roads, reducing inter breading and fostering it within communities, weakening their genes.

After oil was discovered in 2006 in the park, companies funded studies to understand its impact on wildlife. After three years of research, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) published a 2011 report funded by Heritage Oil, which concluded that elephants moved 1,25 kilometres away from oil wells during construction. If all were drilled simultaneously, oil wells could remove 40 square kilometres of habitat for large mammals, the report adds. Four years later, Total Energies Uganda commissioned WCS with a similar survey, which showed the elephant population contracted up to 43% during oil explorations.

The full report hasn’t been published and WCS Uganda says they can’t disclose it as per the contract with the French company. Officials at the park have also not received the report.

The problem is not the oil, Europeans can’t come and tell Uganda not to develop their oil.

“They have been doing aerial surveys but they haven’t shared the results,” says Keigwin, who says that they are required by law to share such reports with UWA. “They put brick walls around their heads and don’t want to see or hear, they think anyone can be an enemy. At the time they are just doing enough to ensure [they avoid] potential litigious avenues.”

However, the UCF founder believes the French company still has time to build a legacy of conservation by financing activities that could expand tourism towards other areas of the park, aside from the popular Delta region. “The problem is not the oil, Europeans can’t come and tell Uganda not to develop their oil. The problem is to use it positively to build a legacy”, he says.

*Halima Athumani contributed reporting to this article.

This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu

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