Massive Animal Herds Flourishing Despite Sudan War, Survey Reveals

Nick Wadhams in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
June 12, 2007
New aerial surveys have revealed that staggering numbers of elephants, gazelles, and antelope survived Southern Sudan's ruinous 25-year civil war virtually unknown to the outside world. (See pictures and video of the animals.)

Other species, however, were ravaged by the war, shows the survey, conducted over 150 flying hours in January.

The project provides the first reliable data from Southern Sudan since fighting halted nearly all conservation work there in 1983. Since a 2005 peace accord, Southern Sudan has been an autonomously governed region within the country of Sudan.

The findings are better news than some scientists had expected. In the absence of access to the troubled region, experts had speculated that poachers and rebel forces hunting for food would have completely wiped out the local animals. (Related video series: "Sudan, Country in Crisis".)

"Seeing thousands upon thousands upon thousands of white-eared kob streaming under the aircraft, day after day, was like I had died and was having the most unbelievable dream you could ever have," said J. Michael Fay, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence who helped lead the survey. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society).

"All my life I have been watching wildlife, and when I saw the kob in Sudan I said to myself, You can die now, Fay, you finally saw what you could have never imagined you would ever see on this planet."

Kob, a type of antelope, are believed to number between 800,000 and 1.2 million in the region. Their movement through Southern Sudan rivals the great wildebeest migration of the Serengeti.

Also found during the survey were many other antelope species, including beisa oryxes, which some Sudanese officials said were extinct in the region; 4,000 Nile lechwes, thought to have been nearly wiped out; 250,000 Mongalla gazelles; 160,000 tiangs; and 13,000 reedbucks.

The survey also reported 2,800 ostriches and at least 8,000 elephants in the region, which was immortalized in Peter Matthiessen's classic of nature writing, The Tree Where Man Was Born.

Some 5,800 elephants were in the Sudd, the vast swampy area where the Nile disperses before taking up its course again through north Sudan to the Mediterranean Sea (map of Sudan).

The discovery fills in a major gap in the world's knowledge about elephants. The World Conservation Union's 2007 elephant survey, for example, said that "virtually all of Sudan's range remains unassessed" and listed what it called an informed guess of 280 elephants.

The 58,000-square-mile (150,000-square-kilometer) survey was led by Fay, WCS Southern Sudan program director Paul Elkan, and Malik Marjan, a Ph.D. candidate from Southern Sudan. Elkan's team will do more surveys in the coming years to firm up the data.

The three scientists surveyed three areas: Boma National Park, Southern National Park, and the Jonglei region, the area between the two parks that includes the Sudd.

The project's findings will be officially announced in a news conference today by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National Geographic Society, and Southern Sudan's government.

Good News and Bad News

Fay had originally planned to survey Southern Sudan as part of his 2004 "Africa Megaflyover," in which he flew some 70,000 miles (113,000 kilometers) to study humanity's impact on Africa. But U.S. sanctions on Sudan prevented him from getting a license to fly over the country.

He, Elkan, and Marjan wanted to copy aerial surveys conducted between 1981 and 1983 that showed that the region—which has spent 13 of the past 17 decades at war—was teeming with elephants, lions, buffalo, and antelope, along with millions of wintering migratory birds.

Marjan had done ground surveys of the area in 2001 and 2002, while the area was still embroiled in war. He concluded that the white-eared kob had survived in great numbers.

But that work was done on foot, and researchers lacked a more definitive count of migratory animals.

"No one had done any surveys, and in species that are so mobile, the very movement of the herds over so large an area makes it hard to gauge without doing a count," said David Western, a former chief of the Kenya Wildlife Service who had taken a census of kob in 1978.

But the latest results delivered bad news as well. West of the Nile River, in the Southern National Park, wildlife levels suffered near-apocalyptic declines.

Some 60,000 buffalo were counted there in the 1980s. Today, Elkan said, none were found.

And previously, elephant populations were 10,000, but the new surveys found only one group.

Rare white rhinoceroses spotted before were nowhere to be seen.

East of the Nile—where quick-moving animals such as the kob, the Mongalla gazelle, and the tiang survived—more sedentary animals fell victim to poachers and rebels with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which was living off the land.

There was almost no sign of the 30,000 zebras reported to have been there in the early 1980s, for example.

Crucial Test

Over the past few decades wildlife numbers have plummeted across Africa, with both rich and poor countries largely failing to meet similar challenges.

So the Wildlife Conservation Society and Southern Sudan say they hope the announcement of the survey findings will add momentum to the fledgling government's efforts to develop a proper wildlife policy.

The Wildlife Conservation Society signed a cooperation agreement to help the government come up with a conservation strategy that would include training former soldiers as park rangers and wildlife officers.

"All this cannot be shouldered by the government of Southern Sudan alone," said Alfred Akwoch, undersecretary of the Ministry of the Environment, Wildlife Conservation, and Tourism. "So if there are friends of wildlife of Southern Sudan, they must come and help."

The news that so many animals survived will also test the young government's commitment to wildlife preservation at a time when it wants to exploit vast oil reserves. Widespread seismic exploration has already taken place, some of it in areas inhabited by wildlife.

And animals are not the only survivors of the conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them pastoralists who have lived outside the region for decades, are now pouring back into the region. They will place additional demands on the land as they struggle to piece together their old lives. (Related: "Darfur Death Toll Is Hundreds of Thousands Higher Than Reported, Study Says" [September 14, 2006].)

These factors place even Sudan's thriving animals under constant pressure.

"I think the threats are greater now than they were during the conflict, because you have people moving back into these areas, and they're armed," Elkan said.

"The question now is, Wow, they survived, but can they survive the peace?"

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