Phenomenal Animal Migration in Sudan Stuns Experts

Bob Woodruff reports extraordinary developments in Sudan's war-ravaged terrain.

BOMA, Sudan, March 20, 2008— -- Over the past year, researchers in South Sudan have noticed an extraordinary and unexpected phenomenon — thousands and thousands of animals thriving in what was a war-torn land just a few years ago. Ravaged by civil war for 22 years, the small village of Boma is the last place wildlife conservationists expected to find large numbers of animals, but that is exactly what they've found: quite possibly the world's largest animal migration, rivaling that of the Serengeti.

"Who would have thought a million animals could have survived and keep going [sic]," said Paul Elkan of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Elkan is the lead researcher in the area and has spent months observing and tracking the herds of animals from his small plane, dubbed "The Annie."

The fact that there are any animals at all in this region surprises Elkan and his colleagues, because for two decades, the war prevented them, and all conservationists, from being in the area to observe the wildlife.

As the violence raged, taking the lives of two million people, the world wondered about the fate of Sudan's other residents — the thousands of elephants, giraffes, and lions that had roamed Sudan's vast grasslands.

When the fighting ended in 2005 and researchers were slowly allowed back into the region, they were stunned to find that not only were the animals still there, they were thriving. "That is what is quite astonishing about the results," said Elkan.  "Some species we think increased." Recently, I visited Elkan and his team in South Sudan, where we spent several hours in The Annie, flying over the beautiful green grasslands of Boma, observing the herds of wildlife below.

Elkan estimates that the region is home to 1.2 million white-eared kob (a type of antelope), 300,000 mongella gazelles, 200,000 animals called tiang, and also oryx, an animal that was, until recently, thought to be extinct.

The government and the people of South Sudan are thrilled by the discovery and the possibility that these animals will bring eco-tourism to the region, which would revitalize the devastated economy.

Sudan's Vice President, Salva Kiir, who also serves as the president of South Sudan, takes eco-tourism very seriously. "It is very important because it can generate a lot of money," he told us. "The species that we have may not be found in other areas, and so it can attract tourism."

Despite the excitement over the possibilities of eco-tourism, there is concern for the future of these animals. South Sudan is believed to be rich in oil, and from the air you can see many oil bases owned by French and Chinese companies.

Oil revenue is needed to improve the economy, but there is concern that the animals may not recover from the exploration. Dynamite has been detonated throughout the area in the search for oil.

"What happens is, you lay the seismic line, then you detonate dynamite, which is below the surface," explained Brian D'silva, the USAID Sudan advisor. "Once the seismic data is collected, the lines are removed, but there are also canals which are dug, and those canals cannot be removed, and they could cause danger to the migratory patterns of the wildlife."

D'silva believes oil exploration can be done in an environmentally responsible way to preserve the wildlife, but locals and conservationists want to ensure that, going forward, the animals are the priority. "The wildlife is the backbone of the country. We are serious about it," said Ejidio, a former SPLA soldier who now works as a park ranger in the Boma wildlife preserve. Despite the challenges, the discovery of this wildlife has conservationists overjoyed.  "When we first started getting photographs and initial e-mails it was just thrilling," said Steven Sanderson, president and CEO of Wildlife Conservation Society.

"It told us one big thing — no matter how much we think about the Earth, there are still great discoveries to be made and great conservation acts to be done."