KAMPALA/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park is bisected by the majestic Nile river and boasts some of Africa's wildlife treasures - elephants, lions and a rare giraffe sub-species.
Beneath it lies another natural prize: oil. Now French energy giant Total has begun surveys to prepare for seismic tests in the national park, one of Uganda's last great wilderness areas, as a prelude to probable crude production.
Total and the Ugandan government insist oil can be extracted from under the national park in a way that minimizes harm to its eco-system, starting with the seismic testing. This uses new technology that they say is less disruptive than traditional methods for pinpointing oil reserves.
Environmentalists are watching what happens at the national park, which lies at the heart of a scramble by oil companies into east and central Africa for untapped hydrocarbon reserves.
"This is one of the first cases of oil exploration and development in a national park in Africa. As such, Total should realize that the eyes of the world are on them," said Alistair McNeilage, Uganda Country Director for the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
"There's a real opportunity that Total will be able to show that they can get oil out from Murchison, while at the same time ensuring the park and its wildlife survives and thrives."
Uganda has known crude oil reserves of more than 2 billion barrels, including under the national park which is named after the spectacular waterfalls within its boundaries where a section of the Nile squeezes through a narrow gorge.
Tullow Oil Plc estimated in May that the east African state could earn $50 billion from exploiting the crude, equivalent to three years' worth of its total economic output.
According to U.N. data, more than half the 34.5 million Ugandans are "economically vulnerable" or poor, but striking a balance between protecting the environment and the need for petrodollars may not be easy.
The government says it is aware of what is at stake. "We know the importance of Murchison and we're taking every possible care to guarantee safe exploration and future oil production," said junior energy minister Peter Lokeris.
Total told Reuters in an e-mailed response that surveys for the seismic testing began in March and operations would last a year.
Typically, seismic tests involve clearing bush in a straight line - perhaps a few meters (yards) wide and as much as 3 km (two miles) long or more - and blasting explosives. Echo patterns along the grid are then analyzed to detect oil pockets beneath the surface.
Blasting and seismic vibrations disturb wild animals; clearing the bush can fragment ecosystems and trap some animals in small pockets of habitat.
Total said it was using in Murchison "one of the latest cableless technologies available in the industry".
Because cables will not be used to record the seismic signals, the technology, provided by Texas-based FairfieldNodal, does not require the removal of vegetation along the grid line.
Instead, cylinder-shaped and lightweight nodes are buried and used for recording. From the industry's perspective this is also better than cables above ground, which can be chewed and damaged by wild animals.
But the impact on wildlife of the blasting noise and seismic activity is still a concern. Peter Wrege, Director of the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University in the United States, studied the effect of seismic testing in the Loango National Park in Gabon.
Wrege and his colleagues found that elephants did not flee an area where there was seismic blasting but became more nocturnal. This may have been due as much to increased human activity as by the blasts, according to their paper published in the journal Conservation Biology in 2010.
Spending more of their waking hours at night can be stressful for elephants because the largest land mammals on earth are essentially eating machines - and usually consume most of their calories by daylight.
"My assumption is that they were hunkering down during the day when the activity and blasting were going on and going about their business at night," Wrege told Reuters. "It could have reduced their energy intake."
Total's environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the seismic testing in the Murchison Falls park places some limits on the proximity of testing to important wildlife habitats, according to a copy seen by Reuters.
Ugandan authorities have signed off on the assessment, which does not call for independent monitors. However, Lokeris said: "Even if the EIA doesn't talk about it we have a company doing independent monitoring for us there, plus our own people."
If drilling and extraction follow the testing, conservationists fear that any oil spill would damage the Nile and its surrounding wetlands.
The Ugandan government says any such risk is minimal. "Offshore drilling is done all over the world and we're not reinventing the wheel," said Lokeris.
"Technologies for drilling in sensitive areas like in water bodies or close to water bodies exist and they've been used in Europe, South America and elsewhere," he said.
But there are negative precedents in Africa. The Niger Delta in the continent's top crude producer, Nigeria, is a befouled mess and the scene of frequent spills.
Murchison Falls Park is designated an "internationally important wetland" under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which was signed in 1971 and has 167 member countries.
But this is not a U.N. convention and lacks the stronger international protections and scrutiny that come with World Heritage status granted by the United Nations.
Across the border in Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa's oldest national park Virunga is home to rare mountain gorillas and is a World Heritage site. Total has promised it will not explore for oil within Virunga's boundaries.
But some people living in Congo's eastern borderlands, which have been racked by years of violence among rebels, militias and government soldiers, wish a major oil company would move in.
"We've been living in misery for a long time," Jean Claude Bambanze, the president of a civil society group in Rutshuru, on the edge of the Virunga park, told Reuters. "You look at tourism. It's done nothing to help the population. If we do have oil, that would be a real chance, it could provide work."
Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Rutshuru, Democratic Republic of Congo; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and David Stamp