Have you ever heard of the red river hog, the fanged deer or the giant pangolin? Don’t worry — neither have most zoologists. All three of these enigmatic creatures live in one of the more richly biodiverse, yet less accessible, corners of our planet: South Sudan.
The world’s youngest country is known for having endured more than two decades of armed conflict. But it should also be famous for its fauna. The landlocked nation between East and Central Africa is home to many incredible natural wonders, including the world’s second-largest land mammal migration and Africa’s largest wetland, the Sudd. This swampy 35,000-square-mile stretch along the Nile is actually listed as a World Heritage Site.
In the midst of the armed conflict, animal poaching spiked, and many conservationists thought South Sudan was hurtling toward mass extinction. But they were in for a surprise. When the Wildlife Conservation Society and the U.S. Agency for International Development began conducting aerial assessments of the country, they realized that the vast, centuries-old migration between the Sudd and Bandingilo National Park was virtually untouched by the war.
Inside this unexpected Noah’s Ark, researchers also found other animals on the brink of extinction.
Their surprise was even greater when, in 2015, cameras placed by researchers in the remote area of Western Equatoria captured images of an endangered species of pachyderm never before seen in South Sudan: the forest elephant. Until then, this smaller, hairier cousin of the famed savanna elephant was known to live in only half a dozen other African countries. The discovery “significantly expands the known range of this critically endangered species and adds another charismatic large mammal to the impressive list of mammals in South Sudan,” says DeeAnn Reeder, a biology professor at Bucknell University, who worked on the project alongside a conservation charity and South Sudan’s wildlife service.
Inside this unexpected Noah’s Ark, researchers also found other animals on the brink of extinction. There were rare deer, giant pangolins (shy, scaly anteaters) and even African golden cats — a gorgeous, blonder version of a cheetah that is vanishing due to deforestation. They had all survived the war.
Reeder actually believes we have only begun to scratch the surface of what could be a much bigger collection of zoological marvels here. Given South Sudan’s vast size and small population of 12 million, the proportion of pristine landscape is huge compared to other sub-Saharan countries. “From the Boma Plateau to the Imatong Mountains, so much remains to be studied,” she says.
Protecting South Sudan’s wildlife is now crucial, not just for the animals’ sake but also for the future of the country. When South Sudan finds peace, tourism promises to be a great source of income and employment in a country that has long relied almost exclusively on oil exports. The nation’s Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism actually estimates that the tourism industry could contribute up to 10 percent of South Sudan’s gross domestic product in just a decade.
The country already has several national parks that would make for a once-in-a-lifetime safari. Some are thrillingly remote, like Nimule National Park, a picturesque stretch of hills and rivers bordering Uganda where it is easy to spot herds of wild elephants. Bandingilo National Park, on the other hand, is home to the awe-inspiring mammal migration and just a short drive from Juba, the capital, making it a perfect getaway for tourists.
Local rangers and international nonprofits are already committing vast resources to the wildlife preservation effort. As for us couch ecologists, we can take solace in knowing that, despite humanity’s penchant for environmental destruction, at least in South Sudan, nature still has the upper hand.
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