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Wildlife Thrives in Southern Sudan, Surveys Reveal

June 21, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: This could be the largest migration of mammals on Earth. A team from the Wildlife Conservation Society and National Geographic recently completed the first aerial wildlife survey in southern Sudan since the start of a civil war in the region in the early 1980s.

What they found was surprising: massive herds of animals that not only survived decades of fighting, but were thriving. One of the project’s surveyors was Michael Fay of the Wildlife Conservation Society. He’s explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.

And welcome to you.

MICHAEL FAY, Wildlife Conservation Society: Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was an area that was just too dangerous to be in before this?

MICHAEL FAY: Yes, the war has been raging for over 20 years, and people pretty much cleared out in the very early ’80s and haven’t been back since.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how big an area are we talking about? What’s the terrain like?

MICHAEL FAY: Well, southern Sudan has now been kind of divided from Sudan in general, and it’s about as big as Texas.

JEFFREY BROWN: As big as Texas?

MICHAEL FAY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what was the expectation going in, that the war had devastated the wildlife population?

MICHAEL FAY: Yes, I mean, usually, you’ve got armies with lots of light weapons, wildlife available, they obliterate the wildlife. In southern Sudan, that didn’t happen. And you ask why? Why didn’t that happen? Well, the SPLA had rules against…

JEFFREY BROWN: The SPLA is?

MICHAEL FAY: … the southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Army — they had rules against hunting large numbers of animals. But there was also a very large security problem, so people didn’t move over the landscape. And we’re talking about migratory animals here. So if you’ve got 800,000 kob moving through a landscape, they might get a few of them as they’re passing by, but for most of the time these kob are where people aren’t.

Finding unpexpected wildlife

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in this particular area, a peace agreement was signed a couple of years ago, and you're finally able to go in. So tell us what you saw.

MICHAEL FAY: Well, you know, we flew into this survey area that had been surveyed in 1981, where people had found somewhere around 800,000 white-eared kob. And we did a big loop around the park to start with.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sorry, kob, is that a kind of antelope?

MICHAEL FAY: Yes, it's a medium-sized antelope, kind of about the same size as a white-tailed deer. And these guys had found around 800,000 of these animals back in 1981. And we do this big loop around the park, and we see none, and we think, just like everywhere else, it's been devastating.

But then we replicated that survey that had been done in '81, flying the exact same flight lines -- because we had a map, kind of like retracing a treasure map or something like that. So we fly about three or four lines, and when we get to the fourth line, we start picking up kob, you know? And there's one, and then there's 10, and then there's 50.

And then the entire surface of the ground was basically just moving with thousands and thousands and thousands of kob, and it would go on for 25 minutes. And then we loop around, go 10 kilometers south, about seven miles south, and run another parallel line, and the same thing.

And then we run another line, the same thing. And we just keep going; transect after transect after transect, the surface is just covered with animals. It was like the world was infested with wildlife.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was that like for you?

MICHAEL FAY: It was like, if you were an archaeologist working in Egypt and you'd been looking for a hidden tomb for your entire life, this is like finding a lost city underground. It really is.

Monitoring uncharted territory

JEFFREY BROWN: It's almost sort of stunning to think in this day in age where, you know, satellites can come down and sort of see your house, for example, here's this big area of the Earth and nobody knew it was there?

MICHAEL FAY: Well, you know, the landscape there is flat, but the vegetation is quite dense, and the grass is very high. And most people -- I mean, people have been flying around southern Sudan for decades doing relief work, but they usually go straight up to 10,000 feet, fly where they need to go, and drop back down.

We were flying at 300 feet over the landscape for almost two months, and there you can actually see wildlife. And people that have been flying around for decades there had no idea that there were wildlife there.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what other animals did you see when you were flying low over the land?

MICHAEL FAY: Well, there were in the early '80s three major migratory species present, the white-eared kob, which is that medium-sized antelope, the Thomson's Gazelle, or Mongalla gazelle, which is a much smaller antelope, and then the tiang or topi, which is a larger antelope. And we found all three of those in large numbers, totaling over 1.3 million individuals.

But we saw 7,000 or documented 7,000 elephants. People thought maybe elephants were gone from southern Sudan. We saw lions. We saw eland in very large herds. We saw hippos and crocodiles and Nile lechwe, and just the list goes on and on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, some animals, I understand, are not doing so well, zebras, for example.

MICHAEL FAY: Well, you know, we would have detected fewer zebra anyway, because there weren't nearly as many zebra back in the '80s as the white-eared kob or the tiang or a few other species. So we may have missed them because we did realize that we missed large numbers of kob, as well.

We may have missed as much as half of these kob, because they kind of looped around, basically, our study area. So we could have very well missed 20,000 zebra easily, because it's an enormous area. And we only flew about a quarter of southern Sudan.

But at the same time, certain sedentary species like the hartebeest, which were found there in large numbers back in the early '80s, have disappeared. And that's probably because, during the war, people were worried about security, they didn't move around much, but if they had sedentary wildlife available, they would use it for food. But these big migratory herds, they just couldn't keep up with them, they couldn't travel long distances, because security was just too low.

Pushing for conservation

JEFFREY BROWN: Having made this discovery, what's next in terms of conservation? Peace must bring other kinds of encroachment, economic development, I would think, for one thing?

MICHAEL FAY: Yes, the irony of this situation is peace may well destroy these migrations in a very short amount of time. They're building roads like crazy in southern Sudan. Oil exploration and exploitation is going on in a massive scale in the largest freshwater swamp on Earth that's located in southern Sudan.

So development is happening very quickly. And once transportation is facilitated, large numbers of animals that are hunted for bush meat can be transported, you know, halfway across the continent in a couple of days. So it's a big threat.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the economic development there, of course, is important for that region, so what's your case? What are you saying to the government now about conservation at this point?

MICHAEL FAY: Well, we're working closely with the southern Sudanese government, as well as the State Department, and we're trying to ask Congress to think about the coincidence of development, but also thinking about natural resource management.

And as southern Sudan emerges from this kind of calamity, we can't just think about taking the resources out of this place and setting up shop without thinking about natural resource management. So I think we're making good headway already.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Michael Fay, thanks very much.

MICHAEL FAY: Thank you. Thanks for having me.