A dirty bumpy road runs through the thick and quiet landscape of Kaniyo-Pabidi Village in Budongo Forest, which lies in Murchison Falls National Park. The road aids the movement of locals and tourists in the game park area.
It is the Masindi-Pakwach Road, sandwiched by towering pristine trees providing a dense canopy that obstructs the sun rays from reaching the ground.
The trees also serve as habitats for different animal species, including chimpanzees that hop from one branch to another.
On either side of this dirty road that serves one of the country’s biggest treasures—tourism— are lurking baboons, monkeys and waterbucks preying for food in their habitats. This is the unique flora and fauna that breeds irresistible lure to tourists to visit the Pearl of Africa every year with inexhaustible curiosity.
Tourism is Uganda’s top foreign exchange earner, having brought in $1.4b (about Shs5 trillion) last year, according to statistics by Uganda Tourism Board.
However, the fast-developing multi-billion dollar oil and gas prospects in the Albertine region where Budongo Forest lies in the exploration area, is threatening the life of this flora and fauna that defines Uganda’s tourism.
Daily Monitor has learnt of a government plan to expand and upgrade the dusty road into a dual carriage tarmac highway. The current road is too small and dusty to handle the anticipated traffic, machinery and materials that will come with the rigours of oil extraction and pipeline construction.
That expansion, however, will be at the expense of some animal species of huge tourist attraction, according to conservationists. The roads regulatory agency-Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), National Environment Management Authority (Nema) and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) all confirmed the plans for road upgrading and expansion. Conservationists are wary that the expansion and spike in the human and vehicle traffic in the game park will prevent chimpanzees from their knuckle-walking crossing from one side of the forest to another.
Mr Moses Dhabasadha, the UWA officer in charge of monitoring oil and gas activities in Murchison Falls Conservation Area, said in April any destruction of canopies without providing alternative ways of movement will curtail the movement of animals from one side of the forest to another.
He particularly cited chimpanzees, which are among the flagship animals of tourism in the country.
“Chimpanzees are canopy dwellers most of the time. They are very uncomfortable crossing the roads on ground. When they design a wide road, and the canopy is opened up, that would mean the chimpanzee population on either side will remain where they are,” Mr Dhabasadha said.
“They will start breeding and inbreeding and in case of any outbreak of an epidemic which affects that gene in that population, they can all be wiped out. [The ideal situation] is you allow families to interbreed and promote a diversity of genes,” he added.
A 2015 survey by UWA, the agency mandated to protect the wildlife, shows that almost all animal species in the games parks are steadily increasing. The survey shows Kibale National Park, home to most chimpanzee populations, has seen an increase in their numbers from 3,300 in 1995 to 5,000 in 1997. More animals in the game parks will require more space.
Proponents of the road expansion say it is needed to kick-start the oil industry, which the government has estimated will come to life by 2022.
Mr Allan Ssempebwa, the UNRA media relations manager, said they are aware the road is in a fragile area but the designs are being made in consultation with agencies that manage the environment and wildlife for conformity.
“We are working with line agencies such as Nema and UWA to ensure that ongoing works do not endanger or have heavy damage on our flora and fauna or environment in general,” Mr Ssempebwa continued.
“UNRA has prepared and completed studies on the critical oil roads, including environment and Social Impact Assessment reports which have been approved by Nema. That is a manifestation that civil works will take into consideration the environment to ensure conservation or restoration where affected.”
Ms Christine Akello, the Nema deputy executive director, said there are ongoing discussions about the proposal to expand the road but a final decision is yet to be made.
However, she insisted that whatever decision is made, the environment should not be the only party to make sacrifices.
“The sacrifice should not be only on the side of the conservationists. It should also be on the side of development. There must be designs that accommodate that particular function of canopies,” Ms Akello told journalists during a Nema board and staff tour of the Albertine region last month.
The board were on a fact-finding mission on the process and progress of restoration and mitigation measures that oil activities will have on the environment since the extraction will take place in delicate ecosystems. The oil and gas extraction will take place in an area of national parks, Albertine delta, forests, wetlands and rivers, among others.
Ms Akello said even if it means creating artificial canopies or dodging some trees during the construction of the road, it will be done to maintain the flora and fauna.
Mr Isaac Ntujju, the Nema oil and gas inspector, says it is a dilemma working in the fragile ecosystems but says the oil companies will do their best, with inspection from Nema, to protect the environment.
He says, as an example, that all pipes will be underneath and “it is not random drilling” which would otherwise affect the environment.
“They will do studies and they have done some studies already to try to understand the stabilities and strength of subsurface structure through which the pipes will go,” Mr Ntujju says.