South Sudan’s wild hope for the future

BALA POOLS, Sudan: It’s home to the world’s second largest migration of animals, an epic movement of antelope through some of Africa’s most pristine wildernesses.

But there is not a single tourist in the vast expanse and stunning scenery of Badingilo National Park to see it – not yet, anyway.

South Sudan, which became the world’s newest nation Saturday, is opening up after decades of brutal war, which killed some two million people and left its infrastructure in ruins.

Wildlife also suffered but many populations did survive, and now the fledgling government is working to conserve and develop what remains.

“People were amazed when it was found after the peace signed in 2005, that the wonderful wildlife that had survived was so great,” said General Alfred Akwoch, adviser to the South’s Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism Ministry.

“The nature and wildlife is great treasure to conserve,” he added, speaking at a ceremony Wednesday for the opening of the first infrastructure to be built for Badingilo park – an administrative headquarters.

Women ululated and men danced as the ribbon was cut to mark the center’s opening, set in a wooded area close to the White Nile River, some 85 kilometers north of the South’s capital Juba.

“There are no wildlife migrations like this in Africa, apart from the wildebeest migration in Tanzania and Kenya,” Akwoch said.

Badingilo is home to giant herds of antelope – including tiang, white-eared kob and reedbuck – as well as giraffe, lion, cheetah and vast bird populations.

“South Sudan is blessed,” said Paul Elkan, who heads the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is supporting government efforts to set up parks.

“If well managed, and with proper care, it could become the largest migration,” he added.

The WCS has been gathering data on animal movements, including via aerial surveys and tagging through electronic collars.

“We found that the years of war had also created some buffers” for the animals, Elkan said.

Badingilo park, vibrant green from the recent rains, stretches over 10,000 square kilometers.

But the wilderness spreads much further – it is the largest area of intact savannah eco-system left in east Africa – and an extension of the park by up to three times its current size has been proposed.

Nor is it the only park: the South has 16 national parks or protected reserve areas, one of them alone, Southern National Park, the size of Rwanda, Elkan said.

Large herds of elephant are also found in the south’s Sudd swamp, the largest wetland in Africa, while there are lush jungle areas along the border with DR Congo.

But officials and experts hope that conserving the wildlife will not simply benefit animals.

Discovering the “immensity and magnitude” of the wildlife population was “like striking gold,” said William Hammink, country director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is supporting the park development in the hope of boosting “security, stability and economic growth.”

The local communities said they are also behind the work, hoping that development will aid them.

“If the animals are a help to us, we will be good to them,” said Augustino Kenyi, a local elder from the Mundari ethnic group, a cattle-herding people.

“If the park can bring in work, security to stop the robbers, and bring us schools then that is something good.”

Hammink noted the importance of building up the economy of the grossly impoverished and aid-reliant South’s economy for when the oil runs out.

Some 98 percent of the Juba government’s budget comes from oil revenues, but current estimates suggest production could decline within the next two decades.

Wildlife conservation will require difficult decisions in the balance of land use too.

Oil reserves and valuable minerals also remain a potential major challenge, with the park lying within the concession of French oil-giant Total.

A senior Total representative was a guest of honor at the headquarters opening ceremony, but was not authorized to speak to the media.

Conservationists hope to work “in partnership” with such companies to ensure effective natural resource management, Elkan said.

There are other problems too: Development will bring new roads, and the south’s wildlife forces already struggle to combat commercial poaching of bush meat such as antelope along the dirt track highway on the edge of the park.

Nor will tourists arrive in large numbers anytime soon: The South remains conflict-ridden, with more than 2,300 people killed in violent clashes across the South this year alone.

But once camping sites or accommodation have been set up, the park is near enough for weekend visits for the legions of aid workers based in Juba.

However, a holiday here will not be for the faint-hearted, light of pocket or unprepared – the two-hour drive from Juba is on a dirt track, in places lined with landmine clearance signs.

But there is both potential and interest. Jonathan Wright, owner of Wildplaces Africa, a Ugandan-based safari company specializing in high-end clients, is in negotiations to begin tours.

“What appeals to me is the sheer scale of the vast area, with stunning scenery and relatively little disturbance,” said Wright.

“If they keep up their conservation efforts, in 10 to 20 years the scale of the parks here will rival any in Africa.”

But it will still be only for the adventurous for some time to come.

“If your airplane went down out there it could take two months to walk out,” Wright said, with a broad smile. “For me, that’s exactly the appeal.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 13, 2011, on page 12.




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