The Lost Herds of Southern Sudan

Sudan’s civil war ended in 2005. Peace brought the welcome discovery that the south still teems with Africa’s iconic animals.

This story appears in the November 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Not long ago in Juba, in an old colonial building with cracked walls and fitful electricity, two former military men—Lt. Gen. Fraser Tong and Maj. Gen. Philip Chol Majak—were explaining the situation.

"Organized gangs, maybe 50 men, are coming in on horseback," Tong said. "They're targeting elephants and the bigger ungulates. They dry the meat and keep the ivory and transport it on camelback."

Tong is the undersecretary for wildlife in semi-autonomous southern Sudan, based in Juba, the capital. Majak is a senior staffer, a wildlife field commander whose army unit was famous for shooting down MiG jets with shoulder-fired missiles during Sudan's latest civil war, which began in 1983. A cease-fire ended that conflict five years ago, but now Majak is fighting a new war. "We have to protect these animals," he said.

There's urgency in his voice. He and his fellow southern Sudanese feel a deep kinship with their wildlife. It's deeper than people elsewhere might realize, because for generations foreign raiders harvested two goods from here: slaves and ivory. People and elephants became linked, almost synonymous, rounded up and shipped off together.

The bond strengthened during the civil war. As bombs and land mines exploded, humans who didn't flee into surrounding countries hid in the bush. So did elephants and other migratory beasts; some fell to hunters, but many evaded gunfire by finding refuge in hard-to-reach places.They became, in the minds of the southern Sudanese, fellow displaced victims of war. The more sedentary animals—buffalo, hartebeests, giraffes—were nearly wiped out. Soldiers hunted and ate the animals, but they also had rules: They would not shoot males, and they would try to avoid hunting any species to extinction.

The war dragged on. By the time it ended, no one knew how many animals remained or would return.

Two years later, three men—Paul Elkan, an American biologist who directs the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) program in southern Sudan, J. Michael Fay, also with WCS, and Malik Marjan, a southern Sudanese doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst—crisscrossed the landscape in a small plane, counting animals for the first time in decades. "It was stunning," Elkan told me. "Three-quarters of a million kob. Nearly 300,000 Mongalla gazelles. More than 150,000 tiang. Six thousand elephants." He came to a realization: "This is, hands down, one of the most important wild habitats in Africa."

WCS's aerial surveys have since been expanded to monitor wildlife, livestock, and human activity throughout much of southern Sudan. Elkan recently piloted his Cessna north of Juba, along the White Nile, then east into an immense territory that reached toward the sunrise. For hours we flew over untouched land. Rivers spontaneously surge here in the wet season, and wildfires rage unchecked in the dry. "This is one of the largest intact savannas in Africa," he said.

He tipped down in the direction of a herd of white-eared kob, streaming north by the thousands. Some species have almost disappeared—there may be as few as seven zebras, devastated by hunting—but in the shadow of the plane, a lioness stalked gazelles. Elephant tracks, disks of mud, marched toward the horizon.

We landed on a dirt airstrip at Nyat, near the Ethiopian border, where village chiefs had gathered to hear about plans for wildlife conservation. Elkan delivered a revelation: The government of southern Sudan has banned hunting.

An elder raised his hand. "What about food?"

There's a big difference, Elkan replied, between a man who leaves his hut in the morning with a spear in his hand—as men have done here for thousands of years—and a hunter spraying bullets from an automatic rifle. Or the commercial hunters coming down from the north to poach game. Rangers may overlook subsistence hunting outside the protected lands, which include the main wildlife migration corridors, Elkan said. But commercial hunting must stop.

WCS and the U.S. government are now working with southern Sudan's government to create a special area spanning some 77,000 square miles. It will encompass two national parks, a wildlife reserve, oil concessions, and community lands. If well managed and secure, Elkan explained, this huge region, so full of wildlife, will draw tourists, creating jobs and revenue. He urged them to spread the word.

The chiefs nodded. Southern Sudanese had fought a long, bloody war to win independence. Now the animals—their fellow survivors—deserved a peace of their own.