Sudanese Wildlife Migration Defies Odds, Rivals Serengeti

Herd of Tiang
Herd of Tiang, Jonglei area.
Photo by Paul Elkan and J. Michael Fay
©2007 National Geographic/ Wildlife Conservation Society

Despite 25 years of ongoing civil war, significant wildlife populations have survived and flourished in southern Sudan, according to a recent aerial survey of the area conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the regional government. “I have never seen wildlife in such numbers, not even when flying over the mass migrations of the Serengeti,” observed J. Michael Fay, a WCS scientist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who conducted the surveys. “This could represent the biggest migration of large mammals on Earth.”

From the 1960s through the early 1980s, WCS’s predecessor organization, the New York Zoological Society, helped establish the Boma National Park in southern Sudan and supported pioneering work on the migration and breeding of the white-eared kob, a kind of antelope. WCS was forced to halt these and other efforts in the region when civil war broke out in 1983. But the recent discovery of significant remaining wildlife populations has led the group to re-launch conservation activities in the Boma-Jonglei Landscape.

Civil war can be devastating to wildlife populations as combatants use wild game as a source of food and as poachers capture animals for bush meat, the ivory trade, and other black market activities. Southern Sudan—an area of grasslands, woodlands, and swamps that is larger than Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda combined—was home to extensive wildlife prior to the war, according to the New York Times. The recent WCS survey revealed the continued presence of elephants, ostriches, lions, leopards, hippos, buffalos, and spotted oryx, as well as an estimated 1.3 million kob, tiang antelope, and gazelle—populations “close to the size of migrating herds of wildebeest on the Serengeti.”

But not all of southern Sudan’s wildlife populations survived. In western parts of the region, the WCS team observed significant losses of buffalos and elephants, as well as inconsistent zebra populations. Scientists speculate that geography played a key role in determining wildlife survival, noting that the eastern part of the region is protected by impenetrable areas of the Nile River and Sudd swamplands. As Sudan recovers from decades of conflict, WCS stresses the importance of managing these and other natural resources “in a wise and sustainable manner [as] an integral part of the effort to rebuild this war-torn nation.”

Already, the regional government is taking considerable measures to protect the wildlife. Southern Sudan has officially protected about 20 percent of its lands for parks, and Major General Alfred Akwoch, undersecretary of the region’s Ministry of Environment, Wildlife Conservation and Tourism, recognizes the importance of wildlife “as the future backbone of the economy and development of Southern Sudan.” He recently signed a cooperation agreement with WCS to “transfer several thousand ex-combatants from [the army] into wildlife services, help establish and manage official networks of parks, and create partnerships with local communities and engage the private sector to employ sound environmental practices.”

WCS’s Fay also stresses the importance of prioritizing sustainable management of Southern Sudan’s natural resources, in part as a means of attracting ecotourism revenues. “I’m going to keep hammering away at these guys [donor nations] that natural resources management is as important for people as it is for keeping elephants alive,” he told the Times. “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.”

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.