Dispatches from Uganda: Threats to Habitat, Biodiversity, and Sustainability — and Discoveries of Giant Rabbits!

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 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 third in a series of field-based dispatches written by professor Kerbis Peterhans on his work, travels, and observations in Uganda.

Due to the accelerated and intense exploitation of Uganda’s natural resources over the past decade, numerous opportunities have presented themselves for scientific exploration and discovery. Although this is superficially a good thing, the sad truth is that the meager funds that are being offered to local scientists to conduct surveys and create Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are merely a means for multinational corporations to cleanse their collective consciences.

Ayago drill core (J. Kerbis)

Ayago drill core (J. Kerbis)

Instead of contributing tens of millions of dollars (a tiny fraction of their profits) to insure the long term survival of the protected areas they are exploiting (e.g endowments to adequately pay guards, anti-poaching units, helicopters, etc.), company-sponsored EIAs collectively offer thousands of dollars for local teams to gather data before development moves ahead. On one hand, this provides financial benefits (my university colleagues are poorly remunerated) and these companies are often the only means to get field work accomplished and to bring students into the field. However, these EIAs do very little for the long term conservation of Uganda’s rapidly degraded natural resources.

The Victorian Nile (J. Kerbis)

The Victorian Nile (J. Kerbis)

It is a very tough situation here and quite a conundrum. Resource extraction (of gas, oil, minerals, and lumber) will move forward in Uganda; survey work and EIAs will at least provide pre-exploitation data, much of which has not been collected before. But some of the environmentally devastating projects on the horizon include an underground hydropower project (Ayago Dam) that will divert the Victoria Nile underground through a hydropower “weir,” which means that the Nile will have a 5 mile section without water…completely dry! This project is being conducted by the Japanese government under their JICA program (Japan International Cooperative Agency).

Furthermore, an above-ground dam will be placed at Karuma Falls (also on the Victoria Nile) in Murchison Falls National Park; but this lies in a much less sensitive area. The rapids at the mouth of Lake Victoria, which feeds the Victoria Nile, have already been displaced by two hydropower stations — one displacing Ripon Falls (in the 1950s) and one displacing Bujagali Falls (on the grid last year). Yes, Uganda needs power as electrical outages have been severe; but alternatives, primarily geothermal but also solar, have not been pursued. For a sense of the ongoing debate about these hydropower projects, see this critique as well as this supporting viewpoint.

The next environmental disaster will most likely arrive in the form of oil and gas exploitation within the heart of one of Uganda’s oldest and most beautiful National Parks, Murchison Falls, and within one of the Albertine Rift Lakes, Lake Albert. Three plots in these pristine areas have been awarded to three multinational oil and gas exploration companies: TOTAL (France), TULLOW (UK), CNOOC (Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation).

Uganda’s President is very proud of the country’s booming population and he alludes to it as a point of pride in Uganda’s development; but is also clear that the vast majority of Ugandans are not benefitting from the economic booms and fewer than 10% of the population will be able to afford access to the new electric supply. Scandals and embezzlement have had a major impact on popular support for massive expenditures and the Bugalizi dam project, for example, was delayed for years as various partners pulled out.

Nycteris macrotis (J. Kerbis)

Nycteris macrotis (J. Kerbis)

So — how do I fit into this conundrum? I volunteered to assist my long-time colleague and friend, Dr. Robert Kityo (Curator at the Museum of Zoology), during his contract work for JICA near the Victoria Nile in Murchison Falls National Park. He has set up over 400 camera traps in a grid to document animal frequencies and movement. I concentrated on sampling the small mammals with my two MSc students, Betty Ndalikka and Sadic Waswa. In addition to the usual types of animals one might expect to find there, we collected a rare bat (Nycteris macrotis).

But one of the highlights was not a specimen we trapped, but one that we found dead on the road: the Bunyoro rabbit (Poelagus marjorita). Poelagus is a genus comprising a single species (marjorita) that is only known from Western Uganda, southeast DR Congo, and southern South Sudan. This big rabbit is incredibly rare in museums around the world, but we have found it to be locally very common. We have seen it with regularity, at night, grazing on the road edge. Two of the world’s experts on rabbits (order Lagomorpha) have told me that absolutely nothing is known of these animals and I have suggested that an MSc thesis on the behavior, ecology and demographics of this species would be invaluable. I collected the first DNA from the animal so we will be able to see where this beast fits in on the rabbit family tree.

Rothschild's giraffe (J. Kerbis)

Rothschild’s giraffe (J. Kerbis)

Surprisingly, the other species of mammals with very limited distributions in the area are very large: Rothschild’s giraffe and Jackson’s hartebeest. The Japanese team (JICA) that is developing the EIA for this area is also considering developing a local museum for education and local community outreach as well as funding some other important activities at the university (through its National Biodiversity Center). Perhaps the Bunyoro rabbit can be included as well –ideally through the sponsorship of a MSc student.

Betty and Sadic work in a seasonal stream (J. Kerbis)

Betty and Sadic work in a seasonal stream (J. Kerbis)

But perhaps the most interesting and least studied habitats were the drying pools that remained from the seasonal streams that flow into the Nile. During one night-time inspection we found tadpoles in various stages of development including the well-known clawed frog (Xenopus), various aquatic insects, and predatory larvae (Trichoptera) — as well as a 6-inch eel slithering through the disappearing pond.

Jackson Hartbeest found in Murchison Falls National Park (J. Kerbis)

Jackson Hartbeest found in Murchison Falls National Park (J. Kerbis)

NEXT REPORT: working with the USA’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Ugandan bat caves . . .

Julian Kerbis Peterhans
Kampala, Uganda
21 Jan 2013

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