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The general aspect of the Soudan is that of misery; nor is there a single feature of attraction to recompense a European for the drawbacks of pestilential climate and brutal associations.
So wrote Sir Samuel White Baker in 1862 during an epic journey up the Nile that culminated in his discovery of Lake Albert, one of the great river's sources. Despite his Pecksniffian pronouncement, Baker—a red-blooded Victorian adventurer—loved every minute of his trek: furtive midnight spear raids on his party; fevers, flood, drought and famine; brain-cooking sunstroke and malarial mosquitoes dense enough to choke a camel; betrayal by his Arab guides and matchless loyalty from the blacks he freed from slavery; assaults by every dangerous form of wildlife from elephants to tsetse flies.
Today, 121 years later, most of the same conditions still apply in Sudan, which is Africa's largest country. Outright slavery is finished and automatic rifles are used as well as spears, but banditry, disease, murderous extremes of weather, betrayal, loyalty and a remarkable abundance of wildlife remain. Thanks to the last there is at least one "feature of attraction" new to Sudan that can make the braving of those hazards well worth the effort of reaching it: a minor miracle of late 20th-century wildlife preservation called Boma National Park. But because of Sudan's long history of endemic violence, tribal and racial hatreds and political instability that would shiver even Africa's geopolitical Richter scale—those "brutal associations" Baker condemned—that miracle may soon be only a bittersweet memory.
Tucked away between the lush Ethiopian highlands and the sun-scorched savannas of the White Nile, Boma is one of black Africa's newest and least likely national parks: Comprising 8,000 square miles, it is a "land that time forgot," as big as Massachusetts and larger even than Tanzania's famed Serengeti game park. One of the pioneers of Serengeti was Bernhard Grzimek, longtime director of West Germany's Frankfurt Zoological Society who also helped conceive Boma. Boma is being built under the supervision of an American named Phil Snyder, who has been working in East Africa's national parks for 13 years.
Snyder's credentials for the job were earned in the field. Which means, in this case, dealing not only with a harsh climate in an unforgiving landscape, but also with extremely limited access, virtually no raw materials at hand, a myriad of feuding indigenous tribes that surround the park and the constant threat of outsiders moving destructively through areas he has carefully planned and constructed. As if that were not enough, there is the simple physical danger of being the wrong person in the wrong place when rebels decide to vent their anger, as happened in June to two of the park employees and a group of Christian missionaries.
Snyder happened to be away on a short trip when the rebels came through, and eventually the hostages they took were released essentially unharmed, but the park was not so lucky. Almost everything was destroyed, and Snyder returned to find all of the vehicles demolished and the park's store of supplies and spare parts gone. The damage was devastating, physically and psychologically, to the people who have been working so single-mindedly on the project. But Snyder has redoubled his efforts on the park's behalf and is starting over.
And indeed, Boma, a spectacular and special place, is worth the effort. Animal herds are generally much larger than those found in East Africa's poacher-ravaged parks and reserves. Reedbuck, small antelope that are rarely found in groups of more than three or four, have been seen around Boma in concentrations up to 4,000 strong as they migrate in late May through the thorny, flat-topped acacia woodlands. Eland, the largest antelope in Africa (weighing up to 1,500 pounds), have been seen in groups of 500 to 1,000—big, hulking, gray boulders of meat, their heavy dewlaps swaying as they run. Giraffes congregate in groups of 200 at times, and gawky red-legged ostriches gallop the plains in flocks of 100. Beisa oryx, thought by some to be the progenitors of the unicorn myth, abound along the desert edges of the park, while their saber-horned, horselike cousins, the roan antelope—at 600 pounds the largest antelope in Africa after the eland and greater kudu—occupy the parklike, lightly wooded areas and broken country nearer to water, sometimes in groups of 70 to 100 animals. Broad-striped Burchell's zebras gallop the grasslands while big black herds of Cape buffalo, fly-swarmed and mud-caked, feed and grunt and wallow in Edenic fearlessness along rivers flowing from the 3,000-foot-high Boma Plateau—the Kurun, draining southwest toward nearby Uganda, and the Oboth and Akobo, which empty into the dismal but life-sustaining Gwom swamps on the park's northern border.
Lesser kudu, Grant's and Mongalla gazelles, oribi and tiny jackrabbit-sized dikdiks, the ungainly Lelwel hartebeest plus all the great African cats—lion, leopard and cheetah—fill out the mammalian register. The extensive wetlands and riverine forests are filled with hundreds of bird species: giant bateleurs and lappet-faced vultures, gemlike sunbirds and bee-eaters, rollers, trogons, weavers, bulbuls and babblers, whydahs and waxbills. The list probably runs to nearly 500 varieties comprising millions of individuals. Millions more migrate from Europe to visit the wetlands in winter.
But southern Sudan's main attraction is the mixed herd of close to a million white-eared kob and 600,000 tiangs that swarm the south during the wet season in numbers rivaling Serengeti's annual horizon-to-horizon wildebeest migration.
The tiang (Damaliscus korrigum tiang) is a close relative of the true hartebeest (Alcelaphus sp.) and has the same goofy look about it: the eyes set wide and high on a long-nosed face, the horns crumpled as if they'd hit a stone wall at a tender age, the shoulders noticeably higher than the rump, giving the whole animal the look of something slapped together out of spare parts. Yet the tiang and its co-species, the topi and korrigum, are the most numerous of any African antelope species, ranging clear across the continent from Senegal in the west to Somalia on the Indian Ocean. The tiang itself is found only in Sudan, southwest Ethiopia and around Lake Albert on the Central African plateau. Highly gregarious, they may congregate in herds of several thousand. Pure grazers with a taste for the medium-high, rather coarse grasses, they eat no shrubbery and seem to thrive on dry grasses snubbed by other antelope. They run—sometimes with a crazed bouncing gait known as "pronking" or "stotting"—very, very fast, especially when being chased by lions, who find them delectable.