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Decoding the Landscape in Africa’s Biodiversity Hotspot

Escaping from angry elephants is all in a day’s work for geographer Nick Dowhaniuk as he studies the impacts of oil development in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park.

Geographer Nick Dowhaniuk, 26, studies the impact of oil development on protected areas in Uganda and the people who live and work around them, primarily in Murchison Falls National Park. Nestled in Africa’s Albertine Rift, the park is a world-renowned hotspot of biodiversity. “It holds something like 50 percent of the bird species in all of Africa, 30 to 40 percent of all mammal species, and a high amount of endangered species,” Dowhaniuk says, including one of the last remaining populations of the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe. “It has lions, elephants, and all the big species that people know and love.”

This beautiful region is also ground zero for Uganda’s burgeoning oil industry. International energy companies have discovered an estimated 2.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil in Uganda, potentially making it the fifth-largest oil producer in Africa. In August, the government licensed a French company to produce oil in Murchison Falls National Park, and other companies are eyeing additional sites for development. “We’re talking about a lot of oil and a lot of potential economic growth in a country that really needs it,” says Dowhaniuk, a National Geographic Young Explorer and Ph.D. candidate in medical geography at the University of Florida, where he is also earning a M.H.S. degree in environmental and global health.

He says that local communities depend on revenue from tourism, which requires conservation in the national parks. But residents also count on the jobs, infrastructure, and financial stability from oil production in and near the parks. Dowhaniuk is looking for answers in this unpredictable region: he has spent about a year total in Uganda, with plans to return before next summer.

He spoke with National Geographic Adventure about the interplay of conservation, oil, and the global economy in Uganda—and about that time he got stalked by an elephant.

How important is conservation in Uganda’s national parks?

Conservation is really important for the tourism industry in Uganda; it’s about 10 percent of its gross domestic product. Murchison Falls National Park has the most tourist visitation of any of the parks in Uganda, so in this one place, we’re talking about a very important industry in tourism and conservation, and potentially a very important industry in oil. Historically they’ve been at odds with one another; there haven’t been too many success stories of conservation and oil development in most case studies.

During the oil exploration phase in Murchison Falls National Park, which ended in 2014, you’d see a weird contrast between this pristine wildlife area and oil infrastructure coming out of the ground; people would take pictures of lions with oil wells in the background. I think the structures have since been removed; people complained that it took away from their visiting experience. But when the production phase starts, possibly in 2018, they’re looking at putting more oil wells back in Murchison, and there’s going to be a pipeline transecting the park to bring the oil down to refineries just south of it.

How have the lions, and other wildlife, in the park reacted to the increase in oil exploration and human activity?

Some studies done at the time showed avoidance behavior. When exploration was going on, wildlife stayed away from the areas being explored because of seismic activities, noise, and vibrations. [A subsequent study] found that during reclamation—after companies have taken down infrastructures within the park and reseeded the ground with natural vegetation—animals do return to the area, which is promising. But we don’t know what will happen when actual production starts. Everybody is really curious as to how this is going to play out in the long run.

How are conservation groups in Uganda working to limit oil production in protected areas?

Back in March, there was a group of about 60 tourism operators and NGOs who, along with UNESCO, got together to put pressure on the Ugandan government to not develop this block around Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Parks.

Queen Elizabeth National Park is south of Murchison Falls. There’s actually a really famous National Geographic picture from Queen Elizabeth National Park of tree-climbing lions—and it’s one of the only populations of lions where they climb trees. The park is important from that conservation standpoint, but it also borders the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and on the other side of the border in DRC is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Virunga National Park. There, [exploration] kind of got shut down due to public pressure, largely because of mountain gorillas living in the area.

In Uganda, initially the interest from oil companies really died out, but it’s come back, and the block was officially granted this past week.

How does your work as a geographer play into this situation?

I look at it from a few different angles. A lot of my work looks at the impacts of oil development on local communities. I look at how local communities surrounding the protected national parks are impacted, and also at the impacts of landscape level change on protected areas. For instance, I use national satellite systems to understand changes in the land, and find where the land is being developed, and how that is changing the landscape.

What have you discovered so far?

One of the things that we we’ve found is potential for ethnic conflicts. Different regions around the park are home to different ethnic groups. A recent local news article interviewed an official from the [one] region about how they mistrusted the government; they feel like this other ethnic group is getting a lot more benefits from the potential oil than they are. Historically, when that’s happened in these regions where there’s a lot of money at stake, this feeling has developed into conflict. I think it’s something to watch because that directly impacts conservation.

There are a lot of other factors—the population is increasing fast in these oil-rich areas and people are moving more to benefit from oil, which puts increased pressure on protected areas from outside—because the more population you have, the more people are using natural resources outside of the park. There also a human health angle. Things like prostitution are increasing outside of the areas, not just in cities but also in the small towns. That could have a public health component of increased disease transmission in those areas too.

Do people in the local communities generally feel that oil development could boost their economy? And are they concerned that development could also decrease biodiversity and harm wildlife, and hurt the economy?

What I got from my interviews, and also from news articles coming out of Uganda, is that people [were] really feeling excited and optimistic about the benefits they could see from oil development. A lot of people also saw a business opportunity, an opportunity to bring economic development and infrastructure to their community as a potential benefit [of oil development], but that hasn’t really happened. And I think people are getting distraught by that. They’re not seeing as much benefit as they were promised.

A lot of local communities around Murchison Falls also feel that, during the exploration phase, elephants were increasingly leaving the park and destroying their land. That was another point of contention between local communities and oil development in the park. Ultimately that impacts conservation, because conservation is largely about the buy-in from local communities. If local communities are seeing more negative than positive impacts, they could potentially start killing wildlife and not supporting conservation efforts.

Are you seeing people buying into the conservation message?

On an individual level, I think people see the benefits of conservation. Around forested areas, the people think that the forest brings better rainfall and better crop growth. In that way I think they see a lot of ecosystem services from protected areas and they support them for that reason.

But like I said, they also see negatives. The people that are living near the protected areas see more negative effects of wildlife leaving the park and affecting their local communities. Some people say they want oil development in the park because the oil companies will also build roads for the communities. But they also see the negative impacts from animals leaving the park because of the oil activity. Studies have tried to look at this situation, and there’s no clear consensus about the benefits or disadvantages of living close to protected areas.

How could one go about solving all these different layers of conflict and still benefit the economy and local communities through energy production?

Everybody hopes it’s done in a responsible and sustainable way, and ideally there would be minimal or no impact on biodiversity, and local communities benefit. I think that’s what everybody hopes. But it’s definitely a wait-and-see type of situation.

Tell us about an average day in the field for you. What kind of challenges do you encounter?

Everything’s so unpredictable! Car issues are very prominent; there were two weeks when we were working in this pretty isolated area, and I got seven flat tires in a period of about 10 days. We snapped our exhaust pipe twice and we put a hole in our gas tank somehow.

I also had to watch out for sudden illnesses. One hour I would be fine and the next hour I would have a 104° temperature and be kind of hallucinating. Then I would wake up the next morning and be fine. It’s scary, especially when you get sick at night. You’re not supposed to drive at night—it’s really dark, there aren’t a lot of roads or lights, and there’s banditry and muggings. So if you get sick at night, you have to hope that you can get out of there the next day.

There are so many other examples: Warthogs begging for food as you eat lunch, or getting charged by elephants.

Go on.

I think elephants are the most terrifying animal out there! They’re so big and they’re so smart. I’d be walking in the bush, and there’d be big shrubs on the path. All of a sudden, I’d walk past one shrub and I’d see a big elephant, just waiting, on the other side.

We always had an armed ranger with us. One day I asked the ranger, “Would that gun do anything if we were actually getting charged?” and he was like, “No.” I said, “Oh, OK. Great.” If an elephant got angry, you basically had to run and hope that nothing happened.

They seem so docile when you’re watching a nature documentary, but not so much when you’re up in their business.

African elephants are super aggressive. There’s a video I saw once of African elephants flipping a car. So every time we drive by one, or if we see one waiting in the roadway, I’m super patient. If I have to wait an hour for it to leave, I’ll wait, because I do not want my car to be flipped! Elephants and random sicknesses are probably the biggest hazards of my field work.

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