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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Southern Sudan is poised to become the world's newest country in just a few weeks. Two decades of civil war cost more than two million lives there and wiped out much of the region's wildlife, too, but not all of it.

A few years ago, conservationists made a surprising discovery: large herds of elephant and antelope. In the first of two stories, NPR's Frank Langfitt reports that the government of South Sudan and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society are now trying to protect animals once thought lost to war.

FRANK LANGFITT: As recently as the early 1980s, wildlife filled South Sudan. Kolor Pino was a second lieutenant in the southern rebel army back then and fought in the bush.

Mr. KOLOR PINO (Game Warden, Boma National Park): I see many, many animals. I see oryx, I see zebra, and I see giraffe.

LANGFITT: Pino and his fellow soldiers didn't have much food. So they ate the animals by the thousands.

Mr. PINO: We are using the zebra. Eating the buffalo, eating the elephant, lion, hippopotamus.

LANGFITT: What does hippo taste like?

Mr. PINO: It is very delicious. Yeah, it is like a cow.

LANGFITT: The war ended six years ago, although fighting continues to this day. Pino, now a brigadier general, serves as game warden in South Sudan's Boma National Park. His job: protect the animals he once slaughtered. It's not easy.

Mr. PINO: The park is very large. It have almost 28,000 square kilometers, just only 150 rangers.

LANGFITT: That's to monitor an area about the size of Massachusetts. To protect animals over such a vast expanse, you have to know where they are. That's where Paul Elkan of the Wildlife Conservation Society comes in.

Four years ago, Elkan and his team began surveying Boma and other parts of South Sudan. It was the first wildlife census in more than two decades. Elkan explains the history as he flies across South Sudan in a single-engine Cessna.

Mr. PAUL ELKAN (Wildlife Conservation Society): Those species which were hit the worst were those who don't migrate, species like buffalo, hardebeast. They got hammered.

LANGFITT: While many animals died during the war, some migratory ones fled the fighting. They hid out in swamps and remote areas. On aerial surveys of the vast savannah, Elkan found far more animals survived than anyone had thought.

Mr. ELKAN: We still have almost, you know, 800,000 kob and a couple hundred thousand tiang.

LANGFITT: Those are types of antelope.

Mr. ELKAN: And these mongala gazelle, there's about 300,000 of them. So these migratory species, some of them increased.

LANGFITT: Some of the country's surviving elephants - there are estimated to be at least 5,000 - live out here. Today, Elkan and his team are going to try to put radio collars on a couple. They want to track migration patterns and help South Sudan figure out how to protect the animals from poachers and development.

Elkan lands the plane at the conservation society's bush camp. And soon, he and his partner, Mike Kock, a veterinarian from South Africa, board a helicopter.

Unidentified Man #1: All clear.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

LANGFITT: Pilot Phil Matthews fires up the engine and heads out across the savannah. Much of Sudan is arid desert. But the south is lush, especially in the rainy season. An emerald carpet of grass stretches to the horizon, dotted with scrub trees and occasional mountains. The team finds a herd of more than a hundred elephants, half hidden amid groves of thorny acacia trees. The pilot, Matthews, brings the copter down low, just a few feet off the tree branches. Kock, the vet, leans out the open door, strains against his chest harness and fires a dart at the elephant's rump.

Unidentified Man #2: The dart's in.

LANGFITT: The dart is in. Kock clicks his stopwatch. He has maybe 40 minutes to do his job. Within five, the elephant is lying on its side, unconscious, in a bed of parched grass.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

LANGFITT: The men leap out of the helicopter. Kock props open the elephant's nostrils with a stick. He tapes a monitor to its eyelid and checks vital signs.

Dr. MIKE KOCK (Veterinarian): Ninety-eight percent oxygen, and pulse rate is 51, which is fantastic. She's looking really good, Paul.

LANGFITT: That's the monitor beeping. Above, a spotter plane watches the elephant herd to make sure it doesn't return and charge the men.

(Soundbite of snoring elephant)

LANGFITT: The elephant - she's at least 30 years old - is snoring.

Mr. ELKAN: Nice. Uh-oh, she wants to wake up. You know what we do if she wakes up? You run.

LANGFITT: Back to the helicopter. Sometimes, the pilot keeps the rotors spinning in case he has to lift off quickly to avoid a charging elephant. Elephants have trampled people doing this work. Kock and Elkan thread a thick collar beneath the elephant's neck with a radio transmitter on top. Elkan explains.

Mr. ELKAN: Well, she's part of one of the most important herds remaining in South Sudan. By tracking her, we track, you know, a group of about 200 elephants, which are the survivors of this long civil war.

(Soundbite of snoring elephant)

LANGFITT: The United States Agency for International Development is largely funding the project with $5 million. South Sudan is desperately poor, and its fledgling economy is built entirely on oil. The program is designed to help South Sudan protect the animals and eventually develop a tourist business around wildlife. Elkan says collaring the elephants is crucial to saving them.

Mr. ELKAN: We want to know where they need to go and also to indentify the threats to this group. By knowing where the group is, we can then orient anti-poaching efforts to protect them. We can also establish corridors for their movements.

LANGFITT: With a radio collar now firmly around her neck, the elephant is ready to go. Mike Kock lays out the teams' plan for a safe getaway.

Dr. KOCK: Phil is going to go the chopper. He's going to start it up. And when Paul gives me the signal, I'll give her the reversal. And it's usually 90 seconds, and she gets up.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

LANGFITT: Kock injects a reversal agent, returns to the helicopter and jumps in. The elephant's getting up now and it's amazing how fast she got up. Within about 90 seconds or two minutes, she was able to get up, and now she's walking. We can see her walking off. She looks in very good shape.

The helicopter rises above the trees. The team looks for a second elephant to dart. After another successful collaring, the pilot begins an hour-long journey back to camp. As the sun begins to set, we come across a herd of white-eared kob, thousands of them bounding through open fields of lush, green grass. The helicopter flies alongside about 30 feet off the ground. It's a stunning, hopeful sight in a land that has mostly known war.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

SIEGEL: In the second part of our series, we look at how South Sudan is trying to protect its wildlife and build a tourism industry in a vast region with virtually no infrastructure. That's tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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