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Wildlife sitting on oil wells in Murchison Falls Park

Wildlife sitting on oil wells in Murchison Falls Park

The shoebill stork is one of the sources of pride for Murchison Falls National Park

By Gerald Tenywa

HARDLY had we moved a few metres away from Wanseko landing site in Buliisa district, when Elvis Muhangi, my guide, turned and whispered: “Shoebill”. 

“He is out there on the swampy patch to the left,” Muhangi pointed out, as he paddled through a tiny channel separating two large marshes. 

In this marshy delta is where chances of encountering the shoebill stork, a wild bird about the size of a turkey hunting for either insects, frogs or tiny fish and sometimes snakes are high. 

“Visitors from all over the world come to see this rare bird,” says Muhangi. “They feel like conquerors when they encounter the shoebill stork because it is only found in a few places in Africa.” 

The excitement over the shoebill faded as frogs croaked and insects hidden in the expansive marshland sang different melodies. They were probably ushering us into the heart of the unspoilt Nile Delta, together with spectacular wildlife and pristine scenery. 

This brought me face to face with the wild beauties of the Nile Delta, one of the most treasured parts of the earth, where River Nile meets Lake Albert. 

A short distance away, fishermen who eke a living out of the delta were perched on wooden canoes, excited by the day’s catch. At the heart of the Nile Delta, large water birds, probably in thousands, gathered for easy pickings. How many birds are in this delta, I wondered. 

Their huge number does not seem to matter because there is plenty for the creatures to eat. As we moved around the delta, most of the smaller birds were flirting and others making acrobatic landings like their cousins, the aeroplanes. It was like the Biblical Garden of Eden. 

This wildlife paradise, according to Gard Mugiri, the warden incharge of monitoring at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), has always been a battle ground for wildlife rangers and fishermen who have depleted fish from the lake and now sneak into the delta to catch bigger fish. A big part of the delta is protected as Murchison Falls National Park.

Other than the fight with fishermen, conservationists are facing a bigger hurdle since prospectors predict that wildlife beauties of the delta could be sitting on one of the most sought after treasures, oil. The water has many shiny blue patches, which oil experts call oil seeps.

“We could be having more oil in the delta than in any other part of the country. But this place is also a delicate ecological system needed for the conservation,” says Reuben Kashambuzi, an advisor in the Ministry of Energy.

The delta is a sanctuary for wild animals

River Nile drops much of its silt in Lake Albert. When the river reaches the delta, it splits into more than 50 channels that either lead into the wider Lake Albert near Wanseko, or Panyimur located in Nebbi district or the Albert Nile on its way to the Sudan border. 

Over time, this has created floating islands, home to many aquatic plants. The islands have become an attraction to wildlife, including large mammals such as elephants.

“Animals like elephants barely move four kilometres away from where there is plentiful supply of water in the dry season.” 

Delta is key to tourism area

The wildlife species flocking the delta have also been accompanied by tourists. Mugiri says the delta is gazetted as a tourism zone, together with the neighbouring Buligi sector, according to the tourism master plan. “The delta has all the big mammals,” says Mugiri. 

“Because of the different attributes, the delta is attractive to many species.”

Over 80% of the tourists visiting Murchison Falls National Park go to the delta and the nearby Buliigi sector because of the many species in the area, according to Mugiri. 

But the oil installations could be causing negative visual impact and the visitors who come expecting to experience a true wilderness may feel cheated, according to Mugiri. 

An aerial view of River Nile at Moyo. When the river reaches the Nile Delta, it splits into more that 50 channels that either lead into the wider Lake Albert near Wanseko or Panyimur in Nebbi District.

To minimise the negative impact, the oil operations in the park take place in seasons when tourism is low and UWA also demands for immediate restoration. 

“We are also demanding for surface installations,” says Mugiri, adding that they will not abandon Buliigi sector. 

In addition, UWA has started creating an alternative tourism circuit around the Murchison Falls National Park, which is expected to diversify the tourism attractions.” 

Studies to establish the impact of oil on migratory animals ongoing

According to park authorities at Murchison Falls, there is ongoing research to study the impact of oil operations on animal movements and behaviour in the park. 

Four elephants have been fitted with collars containing satellites in research conducted by UWA and the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society. He also pointed out that two lions have been collared to monitor the impact on the big cats. 

Currently, a survey is also being done to establish the impact of oil operations on tourism. 

Another study on poaching has shown a rising trend since 2005 in areas where the oil operations are taking place. 

“I am not blaming the oil companies for the poaching, but incidents are increasing in areas where oil operations are taking place,” Mugiri says. 

Impact of oil drilling on conservation

Robert Ddamulira of the World Wildlife Fund-Uganda, a conservation agency, says the discovery of oil raises questions about the balance between oil extraction and conservation. 

The study by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and Wildlife Conservation Society is only two years old and has more two more years. 

The World Wildlife Fund-Gabon made a study on large mammals that has shade light on the likely implications. The study indicated that seismic surveys affect migration patterns of animals, depending on the intensity.

Elsewhere, large mammals have proved to be sensitive to vibrations, for instance, the disastrous tsunami that devastated lives in Asia five years ago was first detected by wild animals. They moved to safer areas, leaving behind humans. 

“As elephants move, they avoid places where there is a road or a camp and chances are high that elephants will chose to go away from such areas,” says Ddamulira.

Uganda’s largest oil well in the park

Not far from the heart of the Nile Delta, the prospectors have already struck the largest deposit of ‘black gold’. 

Located 8.6km away from the heart of the delta, is the Buffalo Well, also known as Jobi in Luo. This well is now home to 400 million barrels of oil, the largest in Uganda so far, according to Reuben Kashambuzi. He contends that there is a lot more oil yet to be discovered at the heart of the Nile delta. 

Prior to the discovery of oil, conservation and tourism were the only form of land use for Murchison Falls National Park, where the delta is located. But with the oil discovery, the foot work by oil prospectors in the protected areas is becoming bigger. 

Oil operations are likely to intensify, according to Ronald Kaggwa, an environmental economist who points out that the Buffalo Well can generate an estimated revenue that is 15 times Uganda’s current annual expenditure. 

The entire Albertine grabben contains 2.6 billion barrels of oil. “It is unthinkable that oil in the delta can remain untouched,” Kaggwa told New Vision.

But environmentalists say while oil is good in the rapid transformation of the economy, its gains are short-lived. 

“This is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. If it was in a country like Kenya, it would be at the fore front of promotional campaigns, but the delta is not known to many Ugandans,” says Dr. Tom Okurut, the executive director of the National Environment Management Authority. 

“How do we remove the oil without hurting the delta?” he wonders.

Publish Date: Aug 03, 2012


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