ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
There are few places on Earth as remote as parts of southern Sudan. Roads are few and relatively new, many locations are only accessible by plane. An area that was once a war zone near the border with Ethiopia, scientists have discovered something unexpected. They found a place where the wild things are, as Gwen Thompkins reports.
GWEN THOMPKINS: Have you ever wondered what the world would look like virtually untouched by the human hand? Open frontier, terra incognita, genesis, baby, then get in a plane and take a look at a place called Boma National Park in southern Sudan. Okay, this is radio, so, listen to Michelle Wieland, who does community outreach here for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Ms. MICHELLE WIELAND (Community Outreach Coordinator, Wildlife Conservation Society): Right now we're over the savanna, so there's small, little woodlands and there's different grasslands. Right now we're flying over a bunch of little, little forests, which are also used for shea butter products and (unintelligible) skin care products.
THOMPKINS: There are people here and there, mostly pastureless. But you won't find many of their settlements on a map. Boma is open country bordering the largest continuous savanna in all of Africa. It's home to communities and animals that nobody ever thought were here. When coupled with all that savanna and wetlands in neighboring Jonglei state, the area is nearly the size of California. This landscape makes the Serengeti look no bigger than a baseball park. Again, Michelle Wieland.
Ms. WIELAND: Yeah, it's big. The Boma-Jonglei landscape is 200,000 square kilometers. So, I think this is an amazing size of an area.
THOMPKINS: Conservation researcher Michael Lopedia(ph) gets more excited than the visitors he's flying with when he sees elephants on the ground.
Mr. MICHAEL LOPEDIA (Conservation Researcher): …down there. There are - is around eight of them now.
THOMPKINS: Not to mention, hartebeests. They're pony-sized, caramel-colored antelope with little heads and big rumps.
Mr. LOPEDIA: These are Tiang now. They are what they call Tiang.
Ms. WIELAND: Tiang?
Mr. LOPEDIA: Yeah. T-I-A-N-G. They are also migratory, but I think (unintelligible) you can see huge amount of them.
THOMPKINS: What makes the animal population here so miraculous is that for more than 20 years, southern Sudan was a war zone between northern forces dispatched from Khartoum and the southern People's Liberation Army. The southern army had a base in Boma, and quite frankly, nothing brings down a zebra like an AK-47. Both sides and the civilian population snacked off the animals. North and south made peace in 2005. But apparently, the war wasn't as devastating to the animals as originally believed. They may do. And in 2007, some scientists got in a plane just like this one and beheld unknown herds of hoofed creatures and respectable numbers of elephants, rare birds, and even hippos. Again, Michelle Wieland.
Ms. WIELAND: There are about 42 hippos inside Boma National Park. There used to be many, many more, but hippos are very easy targets. And so during the war it was very easy for them to be killed.
THOMPKINS: Boma's antelope migration is believed to be second in size only to the wildebeests of the Serengeti. Nowadays the government of southern Sudan, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the U.S. envoy to the region are hoping to capitalize on this unexpected bounty. Southern Sudan desperately needs industry and people love to come to Africa to look at animals. So why not come here? There's potentially 30,000 square miles of animal viewing. And at the very least there's peace and quiet the way nature intended.
But the trouble with the genesis era landscape is that you have to start building from scratch. And tribes people living in this area have been known to walk three days to find salt. Three days - salt. It will take a mighty investment to bring the creature comforts to a land of prickly acacia trees, tall grass and cattails. Some tour companies have reportedly made the rounds, and investors from the United Arab Emirates have leased some land for exclusive lodgings.
But there is a nagging worry in the region that the Emirates company will want to make a high-end hunting camp here, even though hunting is illegal in southern Sudan. Given how remote this place is and how desperate the people who live here are, any concession is possible. Albert Schenk is a project manager for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He says there can be a way for everyone to benefit from the landscape — without guns.
Mr. ALBERT SCHENK (Project Manager, Wildlife Conservation Society): Ideally, of course, it would be a place where you have a lot of species, which will attract overseas tourists, which will bring income directly to the local communities and also revenue for the country. This is a very special place, even if you look at it from a global point of view. So, conserving this place for the people of Sudan, for the people of Africa and basically, for people of the whole of the world is, of course, our goal.
THOMPKINS: Scientists are clearly hoping that the animals will be fruitful and multiply. Before the war, there used to be nearly a million white-eared kobs scampering around Boma and their ears really are like large tuffs of cotton. You can see them from the plane. Boma had almost 50,000 hartebeests, 30,000 zebra 9,000 giraffes. In some areas, the zebra had been wiped out. But with a little peace and quiet, they and lots of other animals will do what comes naturally. And soon they'll be passing out the cigars, or whatever the animal equivalent is of congratulations. The area has its fair share of storks, too.
Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)
THOMPKINS: But these days, the people of Boma are far more interested in a sighting of U.S. envoy Scott Gration. On his recent visit, these children were part of the welcoming committee. Gration was here trying to hold together a fraying peace deal between Khartoum and southern Sudan. If the two sides divorce, he said later, the south will need new sources of income. Like, maybe eco-tourism.
Mr. SCOTT GRATION (U.S. Envoy to Sudan): So, what we saw today in Boma was great because we need to figure out how we're going to get not only eco-tourism and agribusiness in to build foreign exchange reserves, but to be some way of providing jobs. A lot of folks don't have skills other than fighting because they've been doing it for so long.
Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)
THOMPKINS: The bad news is that both north and south Sudan are arming for the possibility of another war. And that endangers every living creature here, human or beast. The fast ones will run, the slow ones will likely fall, the birds will fly away. And this land will go back to being a void, yet another place on earth where the wild things were.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News.
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