SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
September 05, 1983
Heroic efforts to create one of Africa's newest game parks, Boma in Sudan, a land replete with kob and zebras (below), are beset by hellish difficulties
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September 05, 1983

Land Of Hope And Travail

Heroic efforts to create one of Africa's newest game parks, Boma in Sudan, a land replete with kob and zebras (below), are beset by hellish difficulties

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The white-eared kob (Kobus kob leucotis) is smaller than the tiang—150 to 200 pounds vs. 200 to 300—and far more gracefully built. It resembles the ubiquitous impala. The white-ear's closest relatives are the Uganda or Thomas' kob that range west and south from the Sudan's Bahr-el-Ghazal (Arabic for River of the Antelopes, appropriately enough), a branch of the Nile down to Mount Elgon in western Kenya, and the western or Buffon's kob of West and Central Africa. All three wear different colors, from foxy red to buff to almost black. The white-eared females and young bucks are a yellowish tan, but as the males mature they darken into a seal-brown or near black color, set off by distinctive white eye rings, white throats and totally white ears, thus the racial name leucotis.

Most of the year they are found in loosely packed bands of from 20 or 40 up to 100, but during the dry season in Boma—from the end of November to the beginning of April—they are seen in herds of thousands.

The amazing thing at Boma is not so much the abundance of animals but the fact that, in light of Sudan's history, there are any at all. War and wildlife don't mix, and few African nations have been more savaged by war than Sudan. With nearly a million square miles of territory, ranging from fierce desert in the north (the Nubian as well as a lobe of the Libyan Sahara) to grasslands, acacia woods and 10,000-foot mountains in the south, Sudan is rich not only in diversity but in that precious commodity in sub-Sahara Africa: water. The White Nile—running 3,485 miles from its principal source in Lake Victoria to Alexandria and Port Said on the Mediterranean—flows through the middle of Sudan, and the shorter but alluvially richer Blue Nile feeds into it at the capital city of Khartoum in the north. With all that water, the country is a potential breadbasket for black Africa and the Arab world as well.

Yet the country is sharply split. The north is Arab and Muslim, the south Nilotic black and largely animist (what used to be called pagan) in belief. Until the mid- to late 19th century, Abyssinian and Arab slavers and ivory hunters raided and traded at will throughout the south, the White Nile providing a convenient avenue for bringing their goods to market (the other major slave route ran through what is now Kenya and Tanzania to the island of Zanzibar).

Five years after his discovery of Lake Albert, Baker returned to the Sudan under the aegis of the Khedive of Egypt to put an end to the slave trade. Almost continuous war for 15 years largely eliminated it, but on Jan. 26, 1885, Baker's successor, the eccentric Major General Charles George (Chinese) Gordon, after a tenacious defense of Khartoum, was killed in an Arab uprising led by one of those irredentist mystical Muslim priest/warriors Islam keeps hurling in the face of the rational West. The Expected Mahdi, as he styled himself, was a precursor of today's Ayatullah Khomeini, with shades of Muammar Gaddafi thrown in for bloody good measure.

It was not until 1898 that a joint Anglo-Egyptian force led by General Horatio Herbert (later Lord) Kitchener—and including a young cavalry subaltern named Winston Churchill—overthrew the Mahdists and, a year later, established the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium over the region. The political division between pro- and anti-Mahdists continues to this day. Under the condominium, British civil servants imposed something of a European order on what had previously been catch-as-catch-can chaos. Southern Sudan abutted on British East Africa, and today the south looks as much toward Kenya as to the Arab north for both goods and guidance.

But for all the best of British intentions, the Sudan continued to seethe with unrest. In 1955 a misguided resettlement scheme imposed on the southern Azande people triggered a revolt that quickly grew to civil war. A year later the Sudan proclaimed its independence (the "the" is now usually dropped) and the north-south split intensified further. Southern rebels calling themselves the Anya Nya (thought to mean scorpion) wanted to separate from the north and establish an independent country allied with black Africa. The war raged and smoldered for 17 years, through continuous changes of government in Khartoum, by both election and coup. Sudan's population is 19.6 million, and even conservative estimates admit to at least 500,000 deaths in the civil war—2.5% of the country's total population. Sudanese pilots in MiG fighters from the north strafed and bombed indiscriminately; Anya Nya terrorists cut throats (and worse) in retaliation against northern sympathizers. Then in 1972, Major General Gaafar M. Nimeiri, in the third year of the presidency he had taken by force, granted the south limited autonomy, and a fragile peace descended. But Nimeiri has had to weather a mutiny or coup attempt almost every year since he came to power in 1969, and recently a rebel group calling itself Anya Nya II began raiding and killing in the south.

Needless to say, all that civil strife has left the country in sorry shape. In the entire south Sudan, there are only 10 miles of paved road. Where electrical power is available outages are the rule rather than the exception; there are perennial fuel shortages despite large oil reserves that have been found in the south recently. From Acholi to Zande, 115 languages are spoken in Sudan, and the country contains 56 distinct ethnic groups comprising 597 subgroups—nearly all of them occasionally hostile. With food always in short supply and firearms abundant, wildlife in some populated regions has been devastated. Even those Sudanese without guns know how to hunt with spears or rig a wire snare to kill antelope.

African troops, whether government or rebel, are notorious assassins of wildlife. Truck convoys rampaging through game country chatter with the blast of automatic weapons whenever a herd appears on the roadside. Uganda's national parks and game department were once the pride of British East Africa. The elephant herd at Murchison Falls National Park near Lake Albert was the largest and healthiest in all Africa. Today, after eight years of Idi Amin and four of Tanzanian army occupation, the herd is, in the Swahili phrase, nakwisha kabisa (completely finished). Thousands of Amin's troops retreated to south Sudan after the Tanzanian invasion in 1979, slaughtering their own country's game willy-nilly en route, spreading firearms throughout southern Sudan, and so extending the butchery. Yet somehow Boma was spared.

The area has always been off the beaten path. A century ago Arab slavers passed through, and there are supposedly rusting shackles somewhere up on Kathiangor Mountain where the coffles were chained. Not until the turn of the century did European hunters find the area. "I potted elephants until I was tired and got all the ivory I could carry," wrote Major Henry Darley, who visited the region for sport in 1907. But the Boma is fly country—the wicked, cross-winged tsetse whose trypanosomes kill cattle, horses and sometimes humans as well. "My donkeys died, and my mules died, and my men and I would have died, too," lamented Darley, "but for [mosquito nets]." Darley should not have been surprised: 35 years earlier Baker's livestock fell to the fly just southwest of Boma, as he mournfully reported in his journals.

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