As Africa rushes to develop, with the willing assistance of western commodities companies, it is no surprise that its wondrous animals are under threat.
Elephants still roam the Murchison Falls National Park in northern Uganda, where one of its earliest tourists, Ernest Hemingway famously crash-landed in 1954. Tourist cash is important to the region’s economy, but not as important as the discovery made in 2006: oil.
This huge underground discovery, estimated to hold a reserve of 3.5 billion barrels, lies almost entirely within areas officially marked and protected as wildlife reserve.
A 2010 study by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, a semi-autonomous body, concluded that oil drilling will have an effect on biodiversity in the area, and that large mammals like elephants will be most affected.
Already the animals are fleeing areas where oil activities are most intense, and more likely than not, moving into harm’s way.
Part of the Great African Rift Valley, the Albertine Graben region is home to five national parks and several forest reserves.
Hemingway had wanted to photograph the stunning Murchison Falls from the air. Were he to take the trip today, great oil-drilling sites would punctuate the vista, complete with the logos of British firm Tullow, France’s Total and China’s CNOOC.
The increased traffic, noise, vibrations and intense lighting have been shown to disturb elephant’s feeding and breeding patterns. The 2010 study showed that the noise from heavy drilling machinery keeps elephants at more than a kilometre’s distance. Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s biggest game reserve, now has thirteen oil wells in its western part. Precious habitat, now lost.
Tullow, CNOOC and Total have all jointly pledged their commitment to protecting the reserve areas in which they carry out their activities and restoring the areas when activity ceases to the position they were before exploration – a near impossible job. Even they admit that only time will tell whether the animals could be attracted back to the area.
Uganda’s minister for Energy and Minerals, Peter Koleris, claims that the government is working with the oil companies to guarantee acceptable environmental standards, but many are sceptical of their commitment.
In a country where 37 per cent of people still live in poverty, the commercial benefits of oil are real and potentially far-reaching, and more important, it is feared, than the need to conserve valuable species.
Michael Busingye, an environmental officer with local NGO Africa Institute for Energy Governance says that government officials are under-resourced and cannot effectively monitor oil activities in the national park.
“They do not have vehicles to move around the park. When they move around to monitor, they are driven in oil company cars,” he said. “How can they be expected to make objective assessments?”
The process of oil exploration in Uganda has been marred with controversies including government refusal to publish production-sharing agreements and other oil-related documents. Busingye says a lot of oil activities are carried out “in the dark”.
Wherever humans discover resources precious to them, it is almost always fatal to animals, who have no use for them. Oil and elephants might well exist in a zero-sum game, but nevertheless, there are rules, and critics like Busingye fear that important aspects of the industry like environmental conservation are disappearing from public scrutiny.