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.

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