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Massive wildlife population discovered in Southern Sudan

Photos of massive wildlife population discovered in Southern Sudan

Massive wildlife population discovered in Southern Sudan
June 12, 2007

Aerial surveys by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society found more than 1.3 million white-eared kob, tiang antelope and Mongalla gazelle in Southern Sudan, despite decades of civil war.

The population, which includes more than 8,000 elephants, rivals that of the legendary Serengeti in Tanzania and suggests that the region is of critical importance for conservation efforts.

“I have never seen wildlife like that, in such numbers, not even when flying over the mass migrations of the Serengeti,” said project leader J. Michael Fay, a renowned conservationist famous for his 15-month trek across the Congo rainforest starting in 1999. “This could represent the biggest migration of large mammals on earth.”

Tiang herd in the Southern sector of Boma National Park. Photo by Paul Elkan and J. Michael Fay ©2007 National Geographic/ Wildlife Conservation Society

Herd of elephants in the Sudd wetlands. Photo by Paul Elkan and J. Michael Fay ©2007 National Geographic/ Wildlife Conservation Society

After years of fighting northern Sudan, Southern Sudan formed an autonomous region as part of a 2005 peace agreement, and will hold a referendum on independence in 2011. The region was last surveyed in 1982 by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) shortly before civil war broke out in the region in 1983. Based on experiences in war-torn Mozambique and Angola, where wildlife disappeared as a result of those conflicts, scientists assumed the worst for the wildlife of Southern Sudan.

However in recent years reports from the region suggested the existence of large wildlife populations. The rumors were confirmed by extensive aerial surveys conducted by WCS and the Ministry of the Environment, Wildlife Conservation, and Tourism of the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS). The aerial surveys used the same methodology as surveys during the early 1980s.

“Although we were telling people that wildlife was still present in Southern Sudan, nobody believed us,” said Maj. Gen. Alfred Akwoch, undersecretary of the Ministry of the Environment, Wildlife Conservation, and Tourism. “Thanks to the aerial surveys, we now know that wildlife resources, including elephants, are still intact in many areas, but also urgently need strong measures to conserve and manage them through joint efforts at all levels.”

“We were amazed to see these large numbers of white-eared kob in Southern Sudan,” said Malik Marjan, a Southern Sudanese Ph.D. candidate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Most people assumed we would find nothing in terms of wildlife.

Herd of white-eared Kob migration on Kangen River, Boma National Park. Photo by Paul Elkan and J. Michael Fay ©2007 National Geographic/ Wildlife Conservation Society

Ostrich in the savannahs of the Loeli area. Photo by Paul Elkan ©2007 National Geographic/ Wildlife Conservation Society

On Jan. 17, 2007, Fay, Elkan and Marjan set out to replicate the surveys of the early ’80s. Using the same methodology, the same flight lines, the same flight height, they began an aerial survey of three of the four blocks surveyed earlier: Boma National Park, Jonglei region and Southern National Park. Covering more than 58,000 square miles (150,000 square km) and 150 hours of survey time, the team used a survey technique of flying systematically along transects making observations of all wildlife, livestock, human activities and habitat. Observers on each side of the aircraft counted animals that they observed between two sets of rods placed on the wings of the plane. Using statistical techniques of extrapolation, they calculated estimates of how many animals there were on a landscape.

To the surprise of the researchers, the survey of Boma National Park showed little change in the numbers of white-eared kob counted in the 1980s, when the park was considered one of the largest wildlife aggregations on the planet.

“We estimated more than 800,000 kob in Southern Sudan,” said Fay. “If you were a gold miner and hit a vein of gold, like we found in kob, you would have found El Dorado. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that this kind of abundance in nature existed in a region after 25 years of civil war, virtually unknown to the world at large.”

Fay and colleagues further estimated 250,000 Mongalla gazelle, 160,000 tiang, 13,000 reedbuck, 8,900 buffalo and 2,800 ostrich in the region. They also found lion, leopard, eland, Grant’s gazelle, roan antelope, lesser kudu, hartebeest, giraffe, oryx, crocodile, and hippo in viable populations, as well as the beisa oryx, thought to be extinct in the region; the Nile lechwe, a threatened endemic antelope; and the Derby eland, the world’s largest antelope.

Not all good news

While the results were mostly positive, the researchers did find some species and protected areas fared worse than others, especially migratory species. Southern National Park, located west of the Nile, lost 90 percent of some key species since the 1980s

“We saw no buffalo where in 1981 there were estimated to have been 60,000, and only one group of elephants was sighted where some 10,000 had been estimated to roam in the past,” said Paul Elkan, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Southern Sudan Country Program. Many non-migratory wildlife species on the east side of the Nile were also significantly reduced. “We did not observe a single zebra during the systematic survey in Boma, where 29,000 were seen in the early ’80s.”

Conservation follow up needed

Road constructed in Jonglei region by oil industry. Photo by J. Michael Fay ©2007 National Geographic/ Wildlife Conservation Society

WCS is now calling for the creation of a “Sudano-Sahel Initiative,” based on the model of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, to “foster wise natural resource management in a region of great global conservation value and strategic importance beset by conflict over resources.”

“The significance of this find and the critical juncture we are seeing in the development of Southern Sudan require an intensified effort in the area of natural resource conservation, particularly wildlife,” said Brian D’Silva, senior policy adviser, USAID/Sudan.

WCS has signed cooperation agreements with both GoSS and its Ministry of Environment, Wildlife Conservation, and Tourism to launch a conservation strategy that will protect the region’s wildlife and wild lands. The plan would employ several thousand ex-combatants from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army as rangers and guides, help establish and manage national parks, integrate conservation principles into the resource and landscape management, and engage the private sector to employ sound environmental practices.

“Humanitarian and development NGOs are swarming into southern Sudan,” said Fay. “With all the relief being poured into the region for development and the resource industries moving in, we could actually see this precious wildlife resource, which has thrived under these difficult circumstances, disappear. Ironically, the silver lining to this violent time in Sudan has been the animals flourishing.

Oryx and WCS Cessna shadow, Boma National Park. Photo by Paul Elkan and J. Michael Fay. ©2007 National Geographic/ Wildlife Conservation Society

“Numerous threats in this post-war era face the region, including an enormous amount of extensive seismic exploration for oil in the Sudd that is harming the environment,” added Elkan. “Industrial permits have been awarded over much of the migration corridors. Widespread automatic weapons used during the conflict are now being used by unauthorized individuals for poaching and commercial, unsustainable hunting. The international aid community is building roads, hospitals, schools and commercial networks in the area without determining how this will affect the wildlife and without appropriate environmental impact assessments and mitigation plans in place. Resettlement in areas depopulated during the war is putting stress on the land. Thousands of refugees and internally displaced people are on the move back into this area, which is causing deforestation east of the Sudd wetlands.”

“With the billions being spent annually in Southern Sudan by the international community, almost nothing is being spent on natural resource management, particularly on wildlife conservation,” said Undersecretary Akwoch. “We need donors, partners and well wishers to recognize the importance of wildlife resources as the future backbone of the economy and development of Southern Sudan.”

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This article is based on a news release from WCS

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