Seen thundering across the landscape during an aerial survey, more than 1.3 million white-eared kob, tiang (African antelope), and mongalla gazelle are thriving in Southern Sudan, despite all odds. An estimated 8,000 elephants, concentrated mainly in the Sudd, the largest freshwater wetland in Africa, have also been observed.

Despite the war, some species of wildlife in Southern Sudan, last surveyed more than 25 years ago, have not only survived but have thrived east of the Nile River in numbers that rival those of the Serengeti.

Photo by P.Elkan ©2007 WCS/National Geographic Oryx, Boma National Park

Scientists are astonished at the latest news: Based on experiences in other war-torn regions such as Mozambique and Angola, they believed wildlife had vanished from this area.

“I have never seen wildlife in such numbers, not even when flying over the mass migrations of the Serengeti,” said J. Michael Fay, who conducted the surveys. Fay is a field scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. “This could represent the biggest migration of large mammals on Earth.”

Paul Elkan, director of the WCS Southern Sudan Country Program, and Malik Marjan, a Southern Sudanese Ph.D. candidate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, worked alongside Fay on the project. The team collaborated with the Ministry of the Environment, Wildlife Conservation, and Tourism of the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS). USAID/Sudan and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provided additional funding.

WCS last surveyed southern Sudan in 1982, one year before civil war broke out. During the decades-long war with northern Sudan, political obstacles and conflict precluded further scientific studies there. As part of a 2005 peace agreement, Southern Sudan formed an autonomous region and will hold a referendum on independence in 2011.

On January 17, 2007, Fay, Elkan, and Marjan set out to replicate the aerial surveys of the early ’80s. Using the same methodology, flight lines, and flight height, the team traversed Boma National Park, Jonglei region, and Southern National Park. Over a span of 58,000 square miles and 150 hours, they counted the wildlife and recorded livestock, human activities, and habitat conditions.

“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.” He added, “We cannot risk losing this amazing natural resource now.”

Follow-up aerial surveys and tracking may reveal even higher numbers. Other estimates included 250,000 Mongalla gazelles, 160,000 tiang, 13,000 reedbuck, 8,900 buffalo and 2,800 ostriches. They also observed lions, leopards, elands, Grant’s gazelles, roan antelopes, lesser kudu, hartebeest, giraffes, crocodiles, hippos, and beisa oryx, thought to be extinct in the region. Almost 4,000 Nile lechwe—an antelope found nowhere else in the world—were estimated in the Sudd swamps.

But not all the region’s wildlife populations remain intact. In Southern National Park, located west of the Nile, the team observed a 90 percent loss of some key species since the 1980s. According to Elkan, “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.” On the east side of the Nile, many non-migratory wildlife species were also significantly reduced. Some of the threats to this area in the post-war era include oil development along the migration corridors and the widespread availability of automatic weapons now used for poaching wildlife.

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

In an effort to protect this newly discovered natural resource, WCS has signed cooperation agreements with GoSS and its Ministry of Environment, Wildlife Conservation, and Tourism. The plan would transfer several thousand ex-combatants from the Sudan People’s Liberation 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.

“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 Major General Alfred Akwoch, undersecretary of the Ministry of Environment. “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.”