Survival of wildlife offers tourist hopes to Southern Sudan

The Times of London
Boma National Park, Southern Sudan

Boma migration
A vast migration of kob antelope sweeps across Boma National Park. Environmentalists say that tourism could underpin the economic future of Southern Sudan (Jack Hill for The Times)

“When we first came up here after the war there was a real sense of discovery,” said Dr Paul Elkan, a conservationist in Boma National Park in Southern Sudan. “People were saying that there were no elephants, that there was nothing left, but on the first day we saw a bull elephant, giraffe, oryx . . .”

Flying their small aircraft over the plains, a joint team from the Government of Southern Sudan and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), funded by the US Agency for International Development, discovered one of the world’s largest migrations, as 1.3 million antelope crossed the land.

It is a migration to compete with Tanzania’s Serengeti — a World Heritage Site and international tourist attraction — and the soon-to-be independent Government hopes that it will attract tourists to the new nation.

“If we manage and plan it well, tourism can inject a lot of money, maybe more than oil, into the economy of Southern Sudan,” said Daniel Wani, an undersecretary of the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism in the Southern Sudan capital of Juba.

The Government is seeking operators and investors to open these “world-class parks” to high-end tourism, offering fly-in safaris to luxury tented camps. Southern Sudan is at present almost entirely reliant on revenues from oil, a diminishing resource.

“Oil will get depleted but tourism will be there,” said Dr Wani. “The animals, if we conserve them well, will be there.” He hopes that tourists might begin returning within the year.

That there is anything left for them to see is amazing in itself. The survival of one of the world’s most spectacular migrations, hidden by war, is little short of a miracle.

Decades of civil war killed millions of people and scattered millions more, forced a southern rebel army into the bush where it survived on hunted wild animals, and allowed raiders from the north to kill elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns for markets in Arabia and the Far East.

The impact on Sudan’s wildlife was catastrophic. When conservationists returned after nearly a quarter of a century they found that the elephant populations had been almost decimated, buffalo almost wiped out in protected areas and numbers of hartebeest, a large antelope, reduced from 40,000 to just 1,000 in Boma park.

There had been more than 20,000 zebras previously, but 2,500 hours of aerial surveys by WCS and the Ministry of Wildlife since 2007 revealed a single group of seven. Rhinos have not been seen since the war.

The bulk of the seasonal antelope migration is made up of about 750,000 white-eared kob, which are joined by 300,000 mongalla gazelle, 150,000 tiang and 60,000 reedbuck. Dr Elkan has seen herds of 30,000 tiang and kob stretching to the horizon. “It’s one of those things where you say, ‘My God, you cannot see this anywhere else in the world’ ” he said.

There are also up to 600 elephants in small groups in Boma and perhaps 4,000 in the Sudd, an inaccessible swamp where animals found refuge from wartime hunters. They continue to seek safety there from poachers.

A rebuilt dirt road running alongside the Nile, down the western edge of the migration, links the cities of Juba and Bor. “A commercial hunting and bush-meat trade has developed there and is now well established,” said Dr Elkan.

“These are pressures that are greater now than when we started working with the ministry in 2007, and they’re just going to increase.”

The dangers of poaching and of the wilderness being destroyed by new roads means that animals are still under threat. With multimillion-pound funding from USAID, the Ministry of Wildlife and WCS are working to manage the protected areas and secure safe migratory corridors for the animals across the vast savannah.

“Wildlife has very high value, not for one community or for one person but for everyone,” said Opap Agwa, a former hunter who now works for WCS at the camp in Boma. “The Government needs to be very serious in protecting the wildlife otherwise we are going to lose all the animals, that is what I realise now.”