Southern Sudanese Referendum Opens an Opportunity to Protect a Last Great Wilderness

The wilderness of Southern Sudan could be a more significant conservation area than the Serengeti. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Southern Sudan is home to one of the last wilderness areas in Africa—indeed, one of the last great wilderness areas in the world—containing a large savannah ecosystem adjacent to the largest wetland in Africa. It offers a habitat to buffalo, antelope, zebras, and elephants along with a number of species that exist nowhere else in the world.

But, for two decades, the area has been at best neglected—and more often pillaged—as war raged around it. With a referendum vote scheduled for Sunday expected to end Sudan's civil war once and for all—and create a new nation in East Africa—Southern Sudan has a unique opportunity to protect and rebuild this essential resource.For many years, conservationists assumed that the animal populations in the region had been completely wiped out by marauding armies and desperate farmers pushed from their land. Then, during a ceasefire created by the fragile 2005 peace agreement, scientists had the opportunity to fly over the area. What they found surprised them.

Paul Elkan, the director of the region's Wildlife Conservation Society, told CNN in 2007 that:

We were ecstatic and moved, really. People were saying elephants were finished in Southern Sudan, so initially it's people cheering and yelling in the plane. A bunch of scientists, normally very focused people everyone just whooping and hollering—can you believe there's elephants here?

The team counted 150 elephants during that survey alone. Other surveys have found that the vast antelope migration—the second largest animal migration in the world—remains in tact. Other species, however, have not fared so well. Initial studies have only found seven surviving zebra and the chimpanzee population is unknown.

Lot's of Work Remains

The conflict in Sudan, which has roots wound through the region's centuries long history, is hard to summarize but, in the last decade, it has been at least been intensified by struggles to control resources. Oil, in particular, has been an obstacle for peace, as has the control over limited water resources.

Already, oil interests are planning expeditionary drilling in new areas of the soon-to-be-opened South, and dam and diversion projects have altered the flow of the White Nile into the region. These, of course, are not the only threats to the wilderness area.

Local residents, too, have an interest in keeping hunting in the region open: both as a source of sustenance and income. "I have a question for you," a Murle herdsman told CNN, "You say we must not kill the wildlife because otherwise they will be finished. Now I have to slaughter one of my cows. So in a few years I will have no cows. So you want me to kill all my cows and have nothing?"

Rebuilding the wilderness could create a tourist boom in the region, something that would help people living along the borders of the reserve. However, such a boom, experts concede, would be at least a decade away.

In the mean time, Southern Sudan will have to balance the country's immediate needs with its future prosperity—all while rebuilding a nation from scratch.

Read more about conservation:
Why Conservation Matters in Conflict Zones
The Problem With 'Shoot to Kill' Conservation
8 of the Greatest Conservation Triumphs of the Last 50 Years

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