Photograph by Becky Hale
The war raged for decades. But as millions fled Sudan, Malik Marjan returned to conduct work many considered impossible, crazy, or both. Most assumed wildlife in the region had been decimated by years of brutal conflict. Undaunted, Marjan undertook field surveys first on foot, then by air. The results astonished the world. Against all odds, some species of southern Sudan's wildlife not only survived, but now thrive—in numbers rivaling even the great Serengeti migrations.
When civil war engulfed southern Sudan in 1983, nearly all conservation work ceased. Marjan says that when he returned in 1999 with a master's degree in conservation biology, "it was difficult to convince people wildlife still existed there, but I knew it did."
Fewer than ten people were involved in wildlife and forestry at the time. "We started from zero. No resources. Nothing. We'd meet in each other's houses. When we started fieldwork to count wildlife, we were going into the unknown. People could shoot at you in the bush, or you might step on a landmine. But we didn't allow ourselves to think about the dangers. We set up the New Sudan Wildlife Conservation Organization at Boma. We considered our service part of the efforts of people who lived in the woods and fought for liberation. If we helped conserve resources that had not only natural but economic value, people would ultimately benefit."
His initial field data provided critical baseline information about wildlife populations, distribution, and the war's impact. These reports, accompanied by photographs and videos, offered proof and revived support for conservation efforts.
Marjan's findings also attracted the attention of Michael Fay, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence and conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Together with Paul Elkan, director of the WCS Southern Sudan Country Program, they planned and executed the 2007 aerial survey that transformed the world's view of wildlife in the region.
The airborne trio witnessed staggering numbers of white-eared kob, a type of antelope, streaming below their plane. They also observed great numbers of other antelope believed to be extinct in the region. In all, they confirmed more than 1.2 million antelopes and gazelles—a massive and previously unknown migration that could be the largest on Earth. Thousands of elephants, ostriches, and buffalo were also counted.
Their methodology replicated techniques used in the last aerial surveys of the area, performed more than 25 years ago. The team flew at an altitude of 300 feet along carefully plotted transects spanning 58,000 square miles.
"Everyone told us we'd find nothing," Marjan recalls. "So it was easy to fear we might fail. But these incredible results amazed everyone, both inside and outside Sudan. We've shown the world what's here and it's a huge relief. In fact, we feel the numbers may be even higher than recorded because so many animals were moving at the time."
Marjan currently divides his time between fieldwork and as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he is a Wildlife Conservation Society Beinecke African Scholar. His next surveys will focus on identifying exactly where antelope spend the long rainy season, a location never before determined. "The area is impassable by foot or even in vehicles," he explains. "When the last surveys were made, satellite tracking collars hadn't been developed. I hope to use this technology to collect data that will finally solve the mystery."
Marjan's findings could not come at more crucial time. Since the 2005 peace accord, hundreds of thousands of refugees are resettling in southern Sudan. Ensuing development, as well as concessions granted for oil exploration, put the region's newly discovered abundance of wildlife at risk.
"Authorities need accurate information about wildlife populations, migration routes, and breeding grounds so they can protect these areas," he notes. "Our studies may not stop oil exploration and development, but they will show how it can be done more responsibly. Already, many people say that wildlife is our oil; they realize the economic impact ecotourism could have.
"I am hopeful," he says, "that our government can find ways to harmonize nature and development. The data we collect provides the best argument for doing so. But more work needs to be done … and done in time to make a difference."
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A guide to Sudan with articles, photos, facts, videos, and news from National Geographic.
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