There are few places on Earth as remote as parts of southern Sudan. Roads are scarce, and many locations are only accessible by airplane.
Scientists working there have discovered an unexpected windfall of nature near the border with Ethiopia, a place that endured Sudan's long civil war, and where the wild things are.
Boma National Park in southern Sudan appears virtually untouched by humans. There are some people living in the area, but it is mainly a wilderness of woodlands and grasslands, bordering the largest continuous savanna in all of Africa. Boma, coupled with the savanna and wetlands of neighboring Jonglei state, is nearly the size of California.
"It's big. The Boma-Jonglei landscape is 200,000 square kilometers (about 80,000 square miles). So this is an amazing size of an area," says Michelle Wieland, a community outreach coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
A flight over the area in a small airplane reveals the abundance of wildlife: rare birds, elephants, buffaloes, hippos and hartebeests, which are pony-sized, caramel-colored antelopes.
From 1983 to 2005, southern Sudan was a war zone between northern forces dispatched from Sudan's predominately Arab Muslim government in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army in the south. The southern army had a base in Boma, and conservationists had concerns about the fate of the wildlife there.
Nothing brings down a zebra like an AK-47, and both sides in the conflict — and the civilian population — fed on the animals.
North and south made peace in 2005. But apparently the war was not as devastating to the animals as originally believed. In 2007, a group of scientists made an aerial survey and beheld unknown herds of hoofed creatures and other animals.
The hippos did not fare so well. Currently, there are about 42 hippos inside Boma National Park; Wieland says there used to be many more.
"But hippos are a very easy target. During the war, it was very easy for them to be killed," she says, adding that they were prized because a single massive animal provides so much meat.
But the antelope population is thriving. Boma's antelope migration is believed to be second in size only to the wildebeests of the Serengeti.
Pros And Cons Of Eco-Tourism
Now, 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 of nature by encouraging eco-tourism.
Southern Sudan desperately needs commerce. And there is peace and quiet, the way nature intended.
But the area is so remote that it would take a major investment to bring creature comforts to a land of prickly acacia trees, tall grass and cattails. Tribes living in the area have been known to walk three days just to find salt. Any tourism facilities would have to be built from scratch.
Some tour companies reportedly have made the rounds, and investors from the United Arab Emirates have leased some land in the area for exclusive lodgings.
But there is a nagging worry in the region that the United Arab Emirates company will want to build and operate a high-end hunting camp. And even though hunting is illegal in southern Sudan, the desperate need for jobs and government revenues could mean that officials will allow the resort, some locals fear.
Albert Schenk, a project manager for the Wildlife Conservation Society, says there can be a way for everyone to benefit from the landscape — without guns.
"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," he says. "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."
Before the war, there used to be nearly a million white-eared kobs, a type of antelope, scampering around Boma. The park also had almost 50,000 hartebeests, 30,000 zebras and 9,000 giraffes.
In some areas, the zebras have been wiped out. Now, with the war over, scientists are clearly hoping the animals will be fruitful and multiply.
Violence Could Reignite
But both northern and southern Sudan are arming for the possibility of another war.
U.S. envoy Scott Gration has been working to hold together a fraying peace deal between Khartoum and southern Sudan. If the peace holds, Gration said during a recent visit to Boma, the south will need new sources of income.
"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," Gration said. "A lot of folks don't have skills other than fighting, because they've been doing it for so long."