BOMA NATIONAL PARK, Sudan — For hours the four-seat plane flew over a burned landscape of blackened earth and browning grass. A thick haze thrown into the sky by bushfires shortened the horizon obscuring the Boma Escarpment and, beyond it, the Ethiopian highlands.
The landscape in this part of Sudan is startling: patches of pasture and sparse forest, curving river bends and swampy lakes, and, in the distance, mountains erupting out of the endless flatness of the un-peopled savannah, their high rocky domes circled by vultures and thick green forest huddling in the gullies on their steep slopes.
And there are animals.
“When we first came up here after the war there was a real sense of discovery,” said Paul Elkan of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a USAID-funded organization working with the new South Sudan government to protect the animals and establish this vast and remote chunk of southern Sudan as a tourist destination.
“People were saying there were no elephants, that there was nothing left. But on the first day we saw a bull elephant, giraffe, oryx," he added.
The big discovery, however, was one of the world’s largest animal migrations as 1.3 million antelope follow a continuous circuit across the landscape.
Experts say the movement is on a par with Tanzania’s famed Serengeti wildlife migration and the government here hopes that tourists will be drawn to this undiscovered wilderness bringing in much-needed income to one of the poorest countries on earth.
“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, undersecretary of the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism in Juba, the southern capital.
For now, oil accounts for almost the entire budget of South Sudan. But it is a finite resource
“Oil will get depleted but tourism will be there. The animals, if we conserve them well, will be there,” Wani said.
The government, which in July will celebrate its independence from the North after a referendum on secession held last month, is seeking operators and investors to open up what Wani calls its “world class parks” to high-end tourism: fly-in safaris to luxury tented camps.
Wani hopes that “within the year” tourists might begin coming to southern Sudan again, a country that only six years ago emerged from decades of civil war that killed an estimated 2 million people and scattered 4 million more.
During the years of fighting, the southern rebels lived in the bush surviving on hunted wild animals while, from the north, Khartoum-allied militias hunted down elephants and rhinos to sell their tusks and horns for sale on international markets.
Sudan’s wildlife held on, barely. Elephant populations were decimated, buffalo came close to extirpation and just 1,000 hartebeest (a large horned antelope) remained in Boma park, down from 40,000 in the early 1980s. A handful of zebra survived, rhinos have yet to be spotted.
The damage was devastating but the war also stunted development so that roads were not built, urban centers did not sprawl and vast areas of this huge country were left almost untouched. Boma National Park — one of six in the southern Sudan territory — covers 5 million acres.
“The contiguous Boma-Bandigilo-Jonglei plains is one of the largest pieces of intact, roadless savannah in Africa, and is the home of this migration,” said Elkan, whose field camp wraps around the foot of Nyat hill on the eastern edge of the park.
The two-hour low altitude flight from Juba crosses just one barely-used dirt road.
The seasonal antelope migration is made up of 750,000 white-eared kob, 300,000 mongalla gazelle, 150,000 tiang and 60,000 reedbuck. During the dry months of November-April, the migration splits moving northwards toward the Ethiopian border and the swamps of the Sudd; in the wet season the animals congregate further south in Boma and neighboring Badingilo National Park.
Elkan has seen herds of tiang 30,000 strong and white-eared 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.’ It’s a tremendous wilderness experience,” he said.
There are also up to 600 elephant in Boma and as many as 4,000 in the Sudd, a hard-to-reach swamp where animals found refuge from wartime hunters and continue to find safety there from post-war poachers who supply a thriving commercial bushmeat trade that has emerged in recent years.
Anti-poaching operations by the government, supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society, have arrested illegal hunters, confiscating their weapons and bushmeat. A key aspect to the long-term, anti-poaching strategy is to provide information to local cattle-keeping and farming communities about the benefits of wildlife conservation and tourism.
“We talk to the elders and the chiefs, and they talk to the youth,” said Michael Lopidia, a community outreach worker for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We tell them, ‘Imagine if this was your cattle being slaughtered like this! You would just take a rope and hang yourself.'"
The dangers of poaching and of the wilderness being chopped up and destroyed up by new roads means that for animals that survived years of war the threat is not over.
With multi-million dollar funding from USAID, the ministry and the Wildlife Conservation Society are working to manage the protected areas and secure safe migratory corridors for the animals across the vast savannah.
Wani said that fighting poaching and educating the local people about conservation were top priorities.
“The past has been difficult and there are challenges, but I can see a bright future for southern Sudan," he said. “We have potential here, nature has been very kind to us and has given us everything that we need.”