Study reignites controversy over roads in protected areas

Dec 03, 2021

“We are seeing more monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees being killed along these roads than before they were expanded.”

Allan Ssempebwa

Ronald Musoke
Journalist @New Vision

A new study on the impact of road networks in both protected and unprotected areas has reignited the controversy over roads constructed in national parks and game reserves.

The study, done in sub-Saharan Africa and published in the Environmental Letters journal in October, links roads in protected areas to loss and destruction of critical natural systems.

It sheds light on how roads affect animal and plant life and other elements of natural systems.

“The effects of road construction on ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa are growing and influencing land use patterns, poaching, human-wildlife conflict, land degradation and the spread of invasive species,” noted the study. 

According to the study, although land use change is one of the most important drivers of biodiversity loss in Africa, the impacts of roads is often overlooked as one of the drivers of change.

The researchers led by Lavinia Perumal, an ecology doctoral candidate at the African Climate and Developing Initiative at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, said proximity to roads is a major factor enabling poaching and hunting.

Besides facilitating access for hunters, roads also provide market access and reduce transportation costs, which may have sustained the trade of bush meat and illegal wildlife trafficking.

Perumal said in such cases, roads act as indirect drivers because they increase access to previously inaccessible land, markets, cities, and economic opportunities, incentivising such changes in landscapes.

“This is why avoiding road development around and perhaps within 10km (at least) of a protected area would be a smart decision. In cases where the road is already developed, policy and conservation law enforcement may be critical, but it is important to remember that this is treating the symptom of a bigger issue (poverty),” Perumal told New Vision in an email.

The researchers analysed 137 peer-reviewed articles published between 1995 and 2019 and documented 271 effects of roads on protected and unprotected areas across sub-Saharan Africa.

Uganda not spared

The study comes at a time when Uganda’s road authorities are facing a series of backlash from conservationists over roads in national game parks.

Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) has over the last four years been supervising the building and upgrading of about 700km of the oil roads, which are critical for the commercial exploitation of the country’s sh6.5b of barrels of oil that is still under fallow in the Albertine Graben.

Some of these roads traverse the three protected areas of Bugoma and Budongo central forest reserves and Murchison Falls National Park.

These include Kisanja-Park junction (72km); Paraa-Pakwach (24km); Buliisa-Paraa (38km), and the Sambiya-Murchison Falls Road (12km).

These all go through the Murchison Falls National Park. Others are the Masindi-Biiso road which has a 3km section that traverses the Budongo Forest, while another 5km section cuts through Bugoma.

However, from the onset, conservationists feared such activity might become an obstruction to sensitive animals like elephants, while others said an increase in traffic in the park could potentially increase the number of roadkill.

In 2017, a consortium of local conservation organisations warned against constructing heavy traffic tarmac roads through Bugoma Forest and parts of Murchison Falls National Park.

The conservationists petitioned UNRA to consider finding an alternative plan as well as verify if comprehensive environmental impact assessments had been done for the roads. 

Robert Akugizibwe, the executive secretary of the Association for the Conservation of Bugoma Forest, was among the petitioners to the roads agency.

He told New Vision that UNRA did not respond to their concerns.

He said what local conservationists feared four years ago is already happening.

“We are seeing more monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees being killed along these roads than before they were expanded,” he said, mentioning carcasses of monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees and even a forest elephant that he says have recently been found by his team during inspections of the habitat.

Dr Gladys Kalema Zikusoka, the founder and chief executive of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a local conservation non-profit that promotes harmonious coexistence between wildlife and frontline communities in Uganda, said when roads are built in these spaces, the ranging patterns of bigger animals like elephants get affected, which in a way contributes to the human-wildlife conflict.

“Given the impacts of these roads on both bigger animals such as elephants and the smaller ones that you do not easily see with your eyes, it has never been a good idea to build roads through critical ecosystems, especially if they are world heritage sites,” she said.

According to the Handbook for Road Ecology , there are seven key effects of roads on wildlife. These include increasing wildlife mortality, acting as barriers to species’ movement, promoting avoidance by species, attracting species, acting as habitat or passage for movement, promoting habitat loss and degradation.

UWA, UNRA defend roads

Bashir Hangi, the communications manager of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), cast doubt on the research findings, saying infrastructural development of any nature in protected areas cannot cause any major impact.

“You definitely don’t expect zero impact; there will always be an impact, but the magnitude has to be minimised to ensure that we have a good road but also the animals remain safe,” he said. 

“We have put in place guidelines for such infrastructure projects in protected areas and we ensure that we monitor the compliance to these guidelines so that they are not violated.”

Hangi said the safeguards that the contractor put in place were “agreeable” to both UWA and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).

“As far as we are concerned, they are following what was laid down in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) as approved by NEMA. We have a dedicated team on the ground — an EIA team that looks at the road works,” he said.

Hangi said once completed, the road, which goes through Murchison Falls National Park, will be modified to meet the expected parameters that motorists need to follow while driving inside national parks.

Allan Ssempebwa, the UNRA spokesperson, said although the 16km Kaseeta-Rwera road which crosses Bugoma Forest was originally among the roads to be upgraded, it was later dropped to protect Bugoma forest while the alignment for the Karugutu-Ntoroko road was also changed and put outside the park to protect the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve. 

“While constructing roads in protected areas, we use the precautionary principle together with a mitigation hierarchy,” he said.

Ssempebwa said oil roads were ‘ecologically designed’, subjected to multiple assessment criteria and that mitigation measures were solicited from key stakeholders and have been implemented throughout the project cycle.

He said instead, the oil roads in protected areas have protected the fauna and flora by stopping the mandatory regular maintenance that required borrowing materials from the protected areas which would bring in invasive species.

(This story is part of the CABI, SciDev.Net and Robert Bosch Stiftung Script science journalism project)


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