4:05pm

Wed June 15, 2011
Africa

South Sudan Works To Aid Wildlife That Survived War

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:45 am

South Sudan is poised to become the world's newest country in just a few weeks. Two decades of civil war cost more than 2 million lives and wiped out much of the region's wildlife — but not all of it.

A few years ago, conservationists made a surprising discovery: large herds of antelopes and elephants. The government of South Sudan and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society are now trying to protect animals that were once thought lost to war.

Saving Animals

Wildlife filled South Sudan as recently as the early 1980s. Back then, Kolor Pino was a second lieutenant in the southern rebel army and fought in the bush.

"I see many, many animals," says Pino. "I see oryx, I see zebra and I see giraffe."

Pino and his fellow soldiers didn't have much food, so they ate the animals by the thousands, including buffaloes, lions and hippopotamuses.

"(Hippo) is very delicious," Pino recalls. "It is like a cow."

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, where he tries to protect the animals he once slaughtered.

It's not easy. The park is more than 10,000 square miles — an area about the size of Massachusetts — but has just 150 rangers.

Surveying The Savanna

To protect animals over such a vast expanse, South Sudan is relying on help from Paul Elkan and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Elkan and his team began surveying Boma and other parts of South Sudan four years ago as part of the first wildlife census in more than two decades. Flying across South Sudan in a single-engine Cessna, Elkan explains what happened during the civil war.

"Those species which were hit the worst were those that don't migrate," he says. "Species like buffalo, hartebeest — they got hammered."

While many animals died during the war, some migratory ones fled the fighting and hid out in swamps or remote areas.

On aerial surveys of the vast savanna, Elkan found that far more animals had survived than anyone thought. He says the surviving species include 800,000 white-eared kobs and 200,000 tiang — types of antelope — and an additional 300,000 Mongalla gazelles. At least an estimated 5,000 elephants also survived.

Elkan is putting radio collars on a small number of elephants to track their movements and help South Sudan figure out how to protect the animals from poachers and development.

But to collar an elephant, Elkan and his team have to track it down and hit it with a tranquillizer dart.

'Dart's In'

Phil Mathews, a Kenyan pilot, flies Elkan and Mike Kock, a Wildlife Conservation Society veterinarian, out across the savanna one afternoon in search of elephants. 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.

With the help of a spotter plane, the team finds a herd of more than 100 elephants, half hidden amid groves of thorny acacia trees. Mathews 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 an elephant's rump.

"Dart's in," he says over the helicopter's radio system

Kock clicks his stop watch: He has maybe 40 minutes to do his job.

Within five minutes, the elephant is lying on its side, unconscious, in a bed of parched grass. The men leap out of the helicopter and go to work. Kock props open the elephant's nostrils with a stick and tapes a monitor to its eyelid to check vital signs.

"She's looking really good," he says.

The plane circles overhead, watching the elephant herd to make sure it doesn't return to charge the men. The elephant snores loudly and, momentarily, stirs.

"Uh-oh," says Elkan. "She wants to wake up. You know what we do if she wakes up? You run!"

Boosting Tourism And Anti-Poaching Efforts

Elkan is only partly joking. Elephants have trampled people doing this work. Sometimes, the pilot keeps the rotors spinning in case he has to lift off quickly to avoid a charging elephant.

Kock and Elkan thread a thick collar beneath the elephant's neck with a radio transmitter on top so they can track the herd, about 200 elephants in all.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is largely funding this project with $5 million. South Sudan is desperately poor and its fledgling economy is built entirely on oil. The program is designed to help this country-to-be protect the animals and eventually develop a tourism business around wildlife.

Elkan says collaring the elephants is crucial to saving them.

"We want to know where they need to go and also to identify the threats to this group," says Elkan. "We can then orient anti-poaching efforts to protect them [and] also establish corridors for their movements."

A Hopeful Sight

With a radio collar now firmly around her neck, the elephant is ready to go.

Mathews, the pilot, starts the helicopter and Kock, the veterinarian, injects a reversal agent. Within two minutes, the elephant is back on her feet. Seemingly unfazed, she heads off in search of her herd.

After a second successful collaring later that afternoon, Mathews turns the helicopter around and begins the hourlong journey back to the Wildlife Conservation Society's bush camp.

As the sun begins to set, the team comes across a herd of kobs, 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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.