New York Times, June 12, 2007Link
The first aerial survey of southern Sudan in 25 years has revealed vast migrating herds, rivaling those of the Serengeti plains, that have managed to survive 25 years of civil war, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Southern Sudan will announce today at a news conference in New York.
J. Michael Fay, a conservationist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, who has participated in the surveys, said in a telephone interview from Chad that southern Sudan's herds of more than a million gazelle and antelope may even surpass the Serengeti's herds of wildebeest, making the newly surveyed migration the largest on earth.
''It's so far beyond anything you've ever seen, you can't believe it,'' Dr. Fay said. ''You think you're hallucinating.''
Southern Sudan, an area of about 225,000 square miles, sits between the Sahara and Africa's belt of tropical forests. Wildlife biologists have long known that its grasslands, woodlands and swamps were home to elephants, zebras, giraffes and other animals. Before the civil war, an estimated 900,000 white-eared kob (a kind of antelope) had been seen migrating there. But in 1983 wildlife research ground to a halt with the outbreak of civil war.
Rebel fighters of the Sudan People's Liberation Army battled government forces, as well as Arab militias that swept down from the north on horseback. In the next two decades, more than two million people died. In 2005 the Sudanese government and the rebels signed an agreement, establishing the Government of Southern Sudan.
Wildlife biologists could only wonder what happened to Sudan's animals during that time. Experience has shown that wars can be devastating to wildlife. As peacetime protections collapse, poachers sweep in to kill animals for meat, horn and ivory. Armies shoot game to feed themselves.
''In places like Angola and Mozambique, the parks just got wiped out,'' Dr. Fay said. In the 1990s, pilots returning from relief missions to Southern Sudan told bleak stories. ''People were saying that wildlife is finished there,'' said Paul Elkan, the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Southern Sudan Country Program, in a telephone interview from Nairobi. Some species, like the oryx, a long-horned antelope, were thought to have been wiped out.
But signs of hope turned up near the end of the war. Malik Marjan, a Sudanese graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, conducted a ground survey in Boma National Park. He and his colleagues saw healthy populations of white-eared kob.
Last January, Mr. Marjan joined Dr. Fay and Dr. Elkan in the first aerial survey of Southern Sudan in 25 years. On their first day of surveying in Boma, they flew over thousands of white-eared kob. Dr. Fay, who has flown more than 70,000 miles of aerial surveys in Africa, was taken aback. ''As soon as we saw that, we said, 'This place is insane.' ''
For the next month, Dr. Fay and his colleagues retraced the path of the last aerial surveys before the war. The white-eared kob were joined by hundreds of thousands of mongalla gazelles and tiang, a species of antelope. They formed a gigantic column that stretched 30 miles across and 50 miles long. ''It was just solid animals the whole way,'' Dr. Fay said.
The biologists estimated there were 1.3 million kob, tiang and gazelle in their survey area. That is close to the size of migrating herds of wildebeest on the Serengeti, long considered the biggest migration of mammals. But Dr. Fay and his colleagues suspected that because they were replicating prewar survey methods, their estimates were low. New survey methods, such as digital photography, were likely to raise it above the Serengeti.
''My personal feeling is that it's the biggest migration on earth,'' Dr. Fay said, ''but we just haven't proved it yet.''
Other animals are also thriving in parts of Southern Sudan, including elephants, ostriches, lions, leopards, hippos and buffalo. Biologists have even spotted oryx, which were thought to be extinct. But some species are faring badly. Southern Sudan used to be home to many zebras. In the 1982 survey, scientists estimated that 20,000 were living in Boma National Park alone. The Wildlife Conservation team found no zebras in Boma at all, and only a few elsewhere.
The scientists also observed that most species suffered badly in the western part of the region. In 1981, about 60,000 buffalo lived in Southern Sudan National Park. Now, Dr. Fay said, ''Not one buffalo did we see.''
Geography may explain much of their results. Poachers on horseback could ride into the western part of Southern Sudan, but the Nile River and a giant swamp called the Sudd proved to be an impenetrable shield protecting the eastern region of Southern Sudan.
Migrating animals also fared better than animals that stayed put year-round. ''Their wet-season refuge is very isolated, so even if they were heavily hunted in the dry season, they would have a buffer,'' Dr. Elkan said.
The survey was conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society in cooperation with the Government of Southern Sudan. The government is already taking steps to protect its wildlife, said Maj. Gen. Alfred Akwoch, undersecretary of the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife Conservation and Tourism. The Sudan People's Liberation Army is deploying some of its soldiers to protect the parks. ''We are training them now with the basic knowledge of wildlife conservation,'' General Akwoch said.
It will also be necessary to balance the conservation of wildlife with the economic recovery from the war, Dr. Elkan said. ''You have oil exploration in the northern part of the Sudd already,'' he said. ''Oil permits have already been handed out throughout most of the migratory corridor for the tiang and the white-eared kob.'' The government is rebuilding roads and schools, and people are returning to their farms. ''This place is hopping,'' Dr. Fay said.
Dr. Fay said he thought Southern Sudan could attract eco-tourists in the future. He also plans to use the new survey to lobby donor nations to set aside some of their aid to Southern Sudan for managing natural resources. ''I'm going to keep hammering away at these guys that natural resources management is as important for people as it is for keeping elephants alive,'' Dr. Fay said. ''If we can't invest in what might be the largest wildlife migration on earth, then we may as well close up shop and go home.''
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission