A shoebill is often described as an ugly, shy and rare bird. Ugly as it may look, it is one of the most sought after birds in the Murchison Falls National Game Park, by tourists.
Tour guides in the Murchison Delta tell stories of how foreign tourists camp in the jungles for days, longing to have a look at the bird, which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies as threatened and vulnerable.
And now in the heart of the park, oil exploration activities by the French giant Total E&P are afoot and whatever the future holds for the “ugly” bird is up to the government and the oil company to decide.
None of the two players rule out the fact that oil activities in the Delta will affect wildlife and eventually tourism.
A power point presentation leaked from Tullow but shared among the three partners, Total, Cnooc and Tullow, shows that drilling oil from Murchison Park has potential implications on wildlife and tourism.
“All development options have potential implications for the biodiversity given that many of the locations… are the last refuge of important species,” the document reads in part.
After the 2011 farm down, Total took over the running of the Murchison Park oil wells in Exploration Area 1A, a place with the highest quantity of crude oil– 1.5 billion barrels northwards– according to the Petroleum Exploration and Production Department.
However, it is the same place that the Ministry of Tourism, Uganda Tourism Sector Situational Assessment report, describes as the wildlife rich delta.
On top of the rare shoebills, the 48 Sq Km delta is home to Rothschild giraffes whose presence in Murchison currently supports the less than 10 per cent of their global population.
The African Bird club also put Murchison Falls National Park in ninth position among the top 10 birding sites on the continent, facts that render the delta a critical habitat.
Total’s corporate affairs manager, Ahlem Friga-Noy, says the company accepted the challenge of working in such a sensitive area on the basis of trying to pro-actively create a project that demonstrates how oil can be extracted while respecting the environment and the ecosystem.
Uganda Wildlife Authority’s [UWA] spokesperson, Lillian Nsubuga, downplays the impact Total’s activities will on the have on Murchison Park saying, the company “occupies only 48 of the over 5,000 square kilometres”.
However, she acknowledged that UWA is aware of the damage the oil activities will cause to the delta.
“We will lose the spectacular nature of that area in terms of tourism but the animals will not die,” she says. “We know we will lose a prime area in the delta.”
The Ministry of Tourism Annual performance report 2012 notes that the exploration of oil remains a challenge due to the impact it poses to the environment and the concerns of the tourists who expect a pristine wilderness.
Producing oil and at the same time keeping an inflow of tourists and fully protecting the environment has been described by government environment officials as a shot at having the best of two worlds eating one’s cake and at the same time having it.
“With or without animals in the parks, oil exploration must carry on because it’s another economic activity the country is interested in,” Dr Tom Okurut, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) executive director says.
According to Okurut, oil companies should be “saved from the (environment and tourism) debate” because they were contracted by the government for strictly business and cannot be held accountable (for any damages).
Although oil, a finite resource, currently promises to bring in over $50b (Shs129t) in income over a period of approximately 20 years, the tourism sector, according to the Ministry of Tourism figures, brings in not less than Shs10b each financial year.
According to 2011 estimates, more than a million tourists visited Uganda, bringing in $805m (Shs2.1t) in foreign exchange, the country’s biggest forex earner by a large margin. As a result, the Lonely Planet travel guide company named Uganda the “top tourist destination for 2012”.
Further, it is no secret that Uganda’s Albertine Graben where the oil and gas resources are found, is the most species-rich eco-region for vertebrates in Africa.
The 2010 state of the environment report shows that the Graben has 39 per cent of Africa’s mammal species, 51 per cent bird species, 19 per cent amphibian species, and 14 per cent plant and reptile species.
Mr Godber Tumushabe, the executive director of Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (Acode) cautions that the government should not forsake tourism and the safety of animals because of oil “whose profits we have not even seen yet.”
“It is a huge problem indeed which needs urgent redress and I guess the relevant stakeholders like UWA and Tourism can realise it at this stage,” he says.
However, Nema’s spokesperson, Naomi Karekaho, says oil development in the park was permitted so that the government leverages on sustainable economic development.
“You can’t achieve economic development without utilisation of the natural resources. Oil is not something we can keep without using because we want to keep the animals alive,” she said.
Even with two field officers expected to monitor and ensure that Total adheres to the set guidelines, a number that civil society organisations have said is too small, inexperienced and ineffective, Ms Karekaho says, Nema still has an upper hand in ensuring that the oil company doesn’t harm the environment.
“There has not been any accident as far as the environment is concerned,” she says. “Those people are trained enough and they work with the district environment people… even the demands of the current activities do not demand more people.”
The ball is in Total and government’s court
Dr Alastair McNeilage, the Uganda Country Director of Wildlife Conservation Society, an international organisation working with Total on how to minimise the impact of the company’s activities on the wildlife says that what government and the oil company have done so far is small compared to what lies ahead of them.
Oil exploration and production, he says, will proceed without skirmishes only if Total and the government agencies involved are committed to making sure that they mitigate the impacts of their oil activities.
“At this stage it is difficult to say that they [government and Total] will or will not protect the environment but they have to show the interest that they will take the environment serious.
“We are not saying that there will be no impact whatsoever but it’s only when the real action starts that we will see whether they are willing to protect the environment or not.”
UWA and the other agencies must first study animal behaviours, because it will help them understand the dynamics of these animals since the entire parks cannot be gazetted in a single day or year.
If that is not done, the animals, because of the chemicals and the noise in the drilling process, will relocate to seek new livelihood in a safer place.
“They may end up in the neighbouring Congo,” Mr Andrew Baraza, the Water Governance Institute Director says. Now that the government badly wants the oil project to proceed, it must compel Total to adopt advanced technologies while drilling.
This might also be hard since most oil companies go for the cheapest and cost effective methods so as to maximise profits.
Ms Friga-Noy says Total, which is currently doing seismic studies in the delta in preparation for more drilling, has put tracking systems in all vehicles to ensure drivers don’t go beyond the speed limits so as to scare animals and to avoid main tracks during peaks hours.
“When we think the risk of involving in an area is too high we will avoid that area. “If we can’t avoid, we will try to minimise our involvement and also consider offset any residual damage that may come up,” Total promises.
Mr Baraza also acknowledges that the government is indeed caught up in a tight position. “What is needed is a balance,” he says. “Most of measures and legislations in place were short term that would not solve any wildlife problems.”
Ms Nsubuga says UWA is insisting on oil companies using the newest technologies because it will make the authority’s work easier but the authority’s lack of trained personnel– who know what to look out for in the field- makes the authority more vulnerable.
In 2012, Nema issued environment management guidelines to all oil companies including Total. However, as Total notes in one of its communiques, the guidelines, which are up to today still in draft form do not include requirements for activities conducted inside of Protected Areas.
From the explanations of both government and Total, it is evident that neither has a clear idea about the impact drilling in the Murchison Delta will have on the wildlife and tourism and as McNeilage suggests, the two have got to look carefully and assess carefully what the impact might be and act appropriately.