Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Ritchies' Farewell Tour: Stage 4, across the River Nile in Murchison Falls National Park, birds, animals and oil

Uganda does it again! Last year it was Lonely Planet naming the country as top destination for 2012. Now it is the National Geographic listing Uganda among their 'top 20 must-see places of 2013'. Not only that, but last week Birdlife International named it a 'preferred birdwatching destination' for next year.

To summarise yet again, Uganda has 342 mammal species, including the 'big five' - lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant and rhinoceros (though the latter only survive within a breeding programme, thanks to China's obsession with rhino horn). It has over 1,000 bird species, many of them found only in Uganda, due to its geographical position between east African savannah, west African rainforest and north African semi-desert.

Nevertheless, despite these impressive statistics, tourism in Uganda is relatively underdeveloped, what with poor roads (though they are now improving thanks to the European Union, China and Japan) and a relative dearth of mid-range accommodation. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) does what it can but other aspects of the country's heritage such as its historical and cultural sites are sadly neglected. The country's poor reputation, both at home and abroad, particularly in the area of human rights, does not make 'selling' it easy. One tour operator was quoted in Tuesday's Daily Monitor as saying, 'In other countries, everyone talks about how their country is the best and yet in Uganda people have been forced to think that Uganda is a terrible place.'

Well, Uganda is far from a terrible place. Indeed, it can be an absolutely magical place as we have been reminded during our 'farewell tour' around some of our favourite places. However, like many other 'magical' places, Murchison Falls National Park, one of Uganda's premier parks, is under threat, under threat from local poachers and under threat from the international oil industry, not to mention the crazy Presidential wheeze of converting some of the land into a golf course. All these activities could end up undermining everything the tourism bodies are trying to do.

In our last post, we wrote about the River Nile from Murchison Falls to Lake Albert. Well, in this post we pop across the river in the company of a UWA ranger to rediscover some of the most symbolic of Uganda's animals and birds.

You do not have to go far in the national park before you see animals. They stand there by the side of the tracks, like this female Uganda kob, just staring at you.

Although the animals were as curious as ever, we noticed some differences in the landscape from the last time we were here, only six months or so ago. There is oil under the broad savannah of Murchison National Park, and in order to get at it and to provide good access to the airstrip, several of the roads have been broadened and deepened, leaving them with precipitously high sides. These red gashes cut cross the grassland, no longer unbroken from horizon to horizon.

Once we had to wait while about 15 lorries rumbled past us. We found it quite unpleasant. I wonder what the animals thought? This giraffe certainly looks bemused.

Nevertheless, the magic remains. For me, the giraffes are among the park's greatest wonders. Their stately unhurried progress across the skyline is unforgettable. Do giraffes ever run, I wonder?

As we drove towards the delta area, our ranger, Daniel, told us about the trouble they were having with poachers. When we were out on the Wild Frontiers boat the day before, we had had one or two awkward moments when our crew were clearly sizing up people in other boats. It turned out they were concerned they might be poachers. Daniel said there was a lot of poaching, not just of what I would think of as 'obvious' targets such as antelopes (easy to carry, dismember and cook), but also of hippos and, of course, elephants. In fact, Tuesday's Monitor reported that in the past three months 103 poachers had been arrested by rangers in Murchison, while at least 75 had been convicted and jailed.

The concerns are genuine. The elephant population in Murchison has fallen from about 14,000 in the 1960s to about 1,000 now. Poaching is worse during periods of political instability and when food is scarce. The impact of climate change is going to make the situation worse and so is the continuing rise in population. In a country which adds a million and a half new lives to the planet every year, it is hardly surprising that there are growing conflicts over land, both conflicts between different groups of people and conflicts between man and animals.

Every year, landless people, desperate to feed their families, encroach onto land within the national parks, National Forest Authority (NFA) reserves and wetlands, threatening the habitat of wildlife. And, of course, animals, recognising no boundaries, trample people's crops and eat the food essential to their families' survival. Families are rarely compensated for such depredations  Lions kill their cattle and so, in return, people poison or shoot them.

The clash between man and animal and the increasing frequency with which the species come in contact with each other can have devastating consequences. Recently, Uganda has had some outbreaks of terrible diseases such as Ebola and Marburg, though not (I stress) in the Murchison area, which some have said can be traced back to direct contact with primates, sometimes through eating them. Tourists, of course, are not at all at risk as they neither eat monkeys nor attend village funeral ceremonies.

Of course, some poaching is still for ivory as it has always been, with the police, customs and UWA rangers becoming increasingly successful in intercepting the tusks at Entebbe airport and other crossings. One ranger told us that it is now rare to find elephants with the size of tusks common a century ago. Indeed, they are now occasionally coming across young animals born with no tusks at all.  A Darwinian response to environmental pressures?

However, poaching is also carried out by descendants of the hunters and gatherers who were turned off their ancestral land to protect the animals they used to pursue. And the weapons they use are often the traditional ones: bows and arrows and spears. As the UWA and other groups are becoming increasingly aware, poaching will not stop until people's livelihoods are secure. Protecting people is as important as protecting animals. Supporting people will also support wildlife.

I have to admit that being in close proximity to huge beasts such as elephants is an awe-inspiring, and sometimes frightening experience. We came across a group of elephants munching away on the acacia trees right by the side of the track. We stopped the car and just watched, holding our breaths in case the animals got rattled, started flapping their ears or showing the restlessness which precedes a charge. However, they remained perfectly calm, entirely focused on the 200kg of leaves and grass they had to consume before sunset. (Not to speak of the 200 litres of water they had to drink.)

However, the park has many other fascinating animals, not all of them quite so big. We love these Jackson's hartebeest, with their long lugubrious faces.

We saw a lot of birds in the delta area, here Egyptian geese and cattle egrets and below a Spur-wing plover and an African jacana. Below these, an African wattled plover surveying all from a termite mound.

However, the most glorious sight of all were the Crested Cranes, Uganda's national bird, resplendent in gold, red and black, the national colours..

Their crests are quite difficult to see against the tall grass, but when they're out in the open, wow!

Sadly, these wonderful birds are seriously under threat due to the draining of, and encroachment on wetlands. Apparently they used to be common sight in the swamp land which has now become Kampala's Northern Bypass.

As Uganda's industrial base becomes more developed, the pressures on parks such as Murchison will inevitably become more intense. The country is already experienced unprecedented rates of tree-felling in forested areas across all regions, threatening rainfall and bringing about climate change. The proud kingdom of Bunyoro, where Murchison is situated, has suffered high levels of poverty for years. The development of its oil reserves, which stretch under Lake Albert and much of the surrounding area, should give the region unprecedented opportunities to increase employment and provide better services for its people. Oil production is expected to start in 2017.

There are many sensitivities of course. Some of the refineries will be built over traditional cultural, historical and environmentally sensitive sites. There are questions about how much employment will go to Ugandans and how much to foreign workers. People are increasingly, and rightly, asking whether schools and further/higher education develop the skills the oil industry needs. The answer appears to be 'minimally'.   One good step is that Total has signed an agreement with Makerere University to improve the quality of engineering graduates.

There have been major discussions about how many of the profits will flow back into the area. The Omukano (King) of Bunyoro Kitara has said that royalties would 'help improve infrastructure, preserve culture and improve the welfare of the kingdom's subjects.' He added that they would go some way towards compensating the Banyoro for the unjust treatment they received from the colonialists during the reign of his appallingly badly treated ancestor, Omukano Kabalega. However, the Kingdom also expressed concerns about environmental degradation and pollution. Civil Society organisations have petitioned the government to create an Oil Fund to address the social, economic and environmental needs of the area. Most of the development to date has been in the Lake Albert area, around Hoima, but it is already taking place in the Murchison Falls National Park itself.

This week, Parliament has been in uproar debating the Oil Bill, so much so that a couple of days ago the Speaker abandoned the session due to the chaos. The police even deployed tanks and water cannon, though they were not used as far as I know. We saw them on the Northern Bypass on their way to quell any demonstrations

As far as I understand, the main discussion relates to whether all the decisions should be made by the Minister for Energy, with the President (allegedly) pulling her strings, or whether they should be discussed and decided on by MPs in Parliament. A scurrilous subtext appears to relate to key issues such as whether only the Minister (and puppet master) should be allowed to 'eat' the oil revenue or whether that opportunity should be accorded fairly to all members of the House at each stage in the bureaucratic process.

These and other thoughts were in our heads as we drove back to the Paraa ferry, passing herds of the beautiful Uganda kob, the country's national animal, and the less sociable little oribi. We wondered how the average Ugandan weighs the benefits the new oil industry can bring their people against the possible environmental and social costs, and if they are even aware of these.

In addition to oil, Uganda is blessed by significant mineral deposits: vermiculite and rock salt, gold, phosphate and limestone, copper-cobalt. An article in the New Vision (11/02/21012) reported the results of a geophysical survey by air which indicated that about 80% of the country is endowed with rich and diverse mineral wealth. The paper listed a score or more of precious, non-precious and industrial minerals.

How the country balances the profits to be made from extraction of oil and minerals, some quite time-limited, against the long-term tourism potential of an enduring landscape and rich indigenous wildlife is going to be interesting to observe.

When we got to the north bank of the Paraa ferry, a development supported by the European Union, we had some time to spare. We were hot, sticky, tired and thirsty. We also wanted to buy some postcards. Alas, none of these needs could be fulfilled, so we stood around in an area with virtually no seats and little shade. An agreement has apparently been made with the various lodges that no refreshments should be made available at the crossing points. Fortunately, I had bought some postcards in Kampala, but what a wasted opportunity! Perhaps the tourism bodies should think a bit more deeply about customer service.

We arrived at our lodge delighted with what we had seen but with a number of questions about what the future might hold. Coincidentally, the place was buzzing. It seemed that oil developers were meeting a stakeholder group which included representatives of community organisations and local businesses such as lodges and campsites. They were discussing how to manage the impact of oil on the local area and on tourism in the area.

Uganda's motto is 'Gifted by nature'. And so it is, with its mild climate, fertile soils, beautiful landscape, varied wildlife and now also its oil and minerals. Let us hope that these gifts are used well for the benefit of the Ugandan people and succeeding generations.


  1. Thanks for your grateful informations, am working in Tourism Portal ,
    so it will be a better information’s for me. Try to post best informations like this always

  2. Nice piece and thanks for sharing your experience.
    As a Tour guide/driver, Indeed uganda is a nice place to go.