Conservation in Uganda: A Report from the Field by SUST Prof. Julian Kerbis Peterhans

Julian Kerbis Peterhans, a professor of natural science and sustainability studies in RU’s College of Professional Studies and an adjunct curator of mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, is spending a year as a Fulbright Scholar at Makerere University (Kampala, Uganda, eastern Africa), one of the premier sub-Saharan academic institutions.

Julian Kerbis Peterhans working in the mammals lab at the Field Museum in Chicago

He is engaged in training African students in biodiversity survey techniques, as well as documenting the biodiversity of mid-elevation forest ecoystems in Uganda. This project follows on the heels of a 5-year award from the MacArthur Foundation in the mid-1990s, when Kerbis Peterhans contributed to a program to train over 60 African students in similar techniques in Ugandan National Parks.

This post is the first in a series of field-based dispatches written by professor Kerbis Peterhans on his work, travels, and observations in Uganda.

In mid August, I arrived in Uganda after a nearly 10-year absence to find a changed country. The economy has completely kicked in leading to great wealth for some (the upper 10% and especially the 1%) and the emergence of a middle class. Many citizens have vehicles and motorcycles now. But without any improvement of infrastructure, the roads are completely impassable at some times of the day.

A taxi stop in Kampala, Uganda (photo: Wikipedia France)

It can take you one hour to travel 1-2 miles, so I do not drive. Unfortunately, you cannot walk or bicycle either, since there are no lanes or sidewalks for non-vehicles and absolutely no regulations concerning traffic flow. Motorcycles (boda-bodas) typically go down  the wrong way on the street; there are no sidewalks; and people, bicycles and boda-bodas all compete for space on the shoulders of the road.

I first came to Uganda  in 1972 during the early Idi Amin years, and began coming regularly in 1988, just after the current president, Yoweri Museveni, took over. Yes, the current CEO has been in control for some 25 years. He has changed the constitution on several occasions to enable him to keep running for office even though the constitution stipulates a maximum of two terms. Many assume that he has manipulated vote totals to maintain his tenure. Opposition candidates have been assaulted despite peaceful protest. The president has recently been grooming his son, recently promoted to being a prominent general, as his heir apparent.

Within a week of his son’s promotion, the NY Times implicated a Ugandan military helicopter in a slaughter of elephants in Garamba National Park (DR Congo, formerly Zaire). The evidence from this ostracity is overwhelming: no tracks on the ground, no butchering of the carcasses, all killed by single head shots on TOP of their skulls, and the hasty retreat of a Ugandan military helicopter as the Congolese park rangers investigated the incident shortly afterward.

Elephants in Garamba National Park, DR of Congo (photo: nonprofitorgs)

Unfortunately this “free for all” attitude has also led to a serious loss of concern for conservation. Some locally maintained forests that have been protected for decades are being run over, in part by refugees from neighboring DR Congo’s nightmares. Oil has been discovered in the Albertine Rift Lakes (with major resources discovered in Lake Albert). These lakes are surrounded by the Albertine Rift Mountains, which are the core areas of my field research. Of  course, if there is oil, it will be exploited.

Two companies are involved — Total and Tullow Oil. One (Tullow) has already invested over one billion dollars in research and exploration without having yet removed a drop. The landscape around Lake Albert will be drastically altered by oil prospecting. I am hopeful the Tullow Environmental Team will make investments into long-term infrastructure improvements that will benefit local communities (schools, health care opportunities for women, endowments for protected area conservation, etc).

Key conservation areas housing hundreds of chimpanzees surround Lake Albert, such as Murchison Falls National Park, Budongo Forest, and Bugoma Forest. The major problem is that the Ugandan government will not start receiving any revenues from oil until the
infrastructure costs have been recuperated; and of course, the government wants the money ASAP.

This is the political and fractured conservation landscape of Uganda today. And what will my role be as a conservation researcher and educator? I hope to contribute to several efforts.

1) The first would include the recruitment of strong graduate students. Due to attractive financial opportunities,most students interested in the science pursue advanced degrees in applied fields such as medicine, pharmacy, agriculture, fisheries, veterinary, etc. Other departments have picked off some of the these more obvious applied opportunities such as ethnobotany, animal pathogens, wildife disease, conservation science, etc.  In order to attract strong students, we need to raise funds for their graduate education (scholarships) and I hope to seek such funding.

2) We also face a “branding” dilemma as students do not see the sense in gaining degrees in the traditional fields of Botany and Zoology. We need to market such innovative opportunities in fields that may include Climatic Change and Biodiversity, Wildlife/ Pathogens and Human  Health, and maybe even Sustainability Studies.

3) Of course I also hope to engage the students that are here in field
work — particularly, the documentation of plant and animal biodiversity. At the moment, wonderful field stations (in Budongo Forest and Kibale Forest) sit empty because the University does not have the funds to send students to the field to use them, nor do students see the need  to do so. With funds from the Center from  Disease Control, I hope to get students into the field  to collect Bird and Mammal hosts and their associated pathogens. Note the newly discovered diseases affecting humans: SARS, Ebola, AIDS, West Nile Virus, SARS, dengue hemorrhagic fever, etc. The trick is to collect the hosts
without getting the disease! Why wouldn’t students jump at the chance?

4) During the process of (3) above, I hope to sample mid-elevation forests of Uganda and to document their biodiversity. These efforts will provide a nice complement to my previous 20 years of work on the mountains of the Albertine Rift. This will also document the fragmentation of these now isolated forests by looking at the genetic distances of their associated animal species from other forest fragments, including the Congo basin forests to which they were once attached.

Over and out from Kampala, Uganda.

Julian Kerbis Peterhans
10 Sept 2012

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