Migration of 6-meter antelope in South Sudan eclipses previous records for the world’s largest antelope, aerial survey reveals | global development

Extensive aerial survey in South Sudan has revealed a massive migration of 6 million antelope, the largest migration of land mammals anywhere on Earth. It is more than double the size of the celebrated annual “great migration” between Tanzania and Kenya, which involves around 2 million wildebeest, zebra and gazelles.

“The migration in South Sudan blows every other migration we know of out of the water,” said David Simpson, parks manager for wildlife NGO African Parks for Boma and Badingilo national parks, between which the migration moves. “Estimates are that the huge herds of antelope species… are almost three times larger than the great migration in East Africa. The scale is truly staggering.”

Animals across the region have endured despite decades of civil war and instability in South Sudan.

Planes equipped with imaging equipment recorded the movement of multiple antelope species between Badingilo and Boma national parks. Photography: African Parks

In 2007, a Wildlife Conservation Society survey suggested that the South Sudanese migration involved around 1.3 million animals. But African Parks, which manages the Boma and Badingilo national parks in southeastern South Sudan on behalf of the government, has been able to provide a more accurate count using improved technology and assessing a more complete area. Two planes were equipped with cameras programmed to take a photo every two seconds. This produced 330,000 images, which were studied by graduates from the University of Juba using wildlife counting software.

“To see these animals here on such a scale is something I would never have imagined still existing on the planet,” said Mike Fay, African Parks landscape coordinator for Boma and Badingilo. “From the air, I felt like I was observing what the Earth might have been like millennia ago, when nature and humans still existed together in balance.”

South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit said the count made the country’s migration “number one in the world,” adding that “as South Sudan continues to develop, we are committed to transforming the sector.” of wildlife in a sustainable tourism industry.

From April 28 to May 15, 2023, pilots and observers flew over an area of ​​122,774 square kilometers (almost the size of Greece) and covered the entire known distribution of antelope species in the Boma-Badingilo Jonglei landscape. They covered some areas that had never been surveyed. In addition to antelopes, researchers documented other species, such as lions, giraffes, buffaloes and elephants.

“The most difficult challenge is installing the aerial reconnaissance equipment on the aircraft, so that the field of view is correct and the calibration is precise and accurate,” Fay said. “It is extremely dangerous to fly at low altitude with large birds, such as vultures, in the air around the plane, and it is intense flying for four hours and counting continuously every day for weeks.”

Giraffe in Badingilo National Park, South Sudan. Photography: Marcus Westberg/African Parks

Estimates indicated five million white-eared kobs, just under 300,000 tiang, 350,000 Mongalla gazelles and 160,000 bohor reedbuck, the four antelope species numbering just under 6 million. Fay said that figure means that “this great Nile antelope migration is the largest on Earth, according to our data, dwarfing any other known land mammal migration on the planet.”

The Great Nile Migration is a year-round movement of animals from the southwest to the northeast, passing through Gambella in Ethiopia and back. This is probably due to the availability of good grazing conditions.

As part of the study, 126 animals from 12 species were collared to measure the distances they traveled: 11 collared white-eared kobs, the most numerous antelope on the landscape, were tracked, covering approximately 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) each. South Sudan’s land mammal migration is not the longest on Earth (the caribou migration in Alaska, at 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles), is longer), but it is a similar distance to the great migration between Tanzania and Kenya, which includes the famous Mara. River crossing. And while South Sudan’s large mammal migration is the largest, its numbers are dwarfed by Zambia’s annual bat migration, in which 10 million straw-colored fruit bats fly from West Africa to the Kasanka National Park.

The White Nile, a vital resource for much of South Sudan’s population, runs along the western side of Badingilo National Park. Photography: Marcus Westberg/African Parks

The study’s findings are “a game-changer for conservation efforts in South Sudan,” Simpson said, and could become “one of the biggest conservation opportunities on the planet.”

South Sudan is not considered safe for international tourism, but such a vast wildlife spectacle means “the potential for tourism is immense,” Simpson says. “Having the world’s largest land mammal migration could put South Sudan on the map as a must-see ecotourism destination. But the current critical value of migration is food security for local communities.”

Kassangor, a community of traditional Jie villages and home to several thousand people, in Boma National Park, South Sudan. Photography: Marcus Westberg/African Parks

The Boma-Badingilo Jonglei landscape is home to numerous people, many of whom live off the land. In addition to revealing the scale of wildlife on the landscape, the study revealed threats to migratory animals and the human communities that depend on them, Simpson said, including “the expansion of roads, agriculture, charcoal production and commercialization”. “These activities can lead to habitat loss, resource depletion and disruption of migratory routes, ultimately threatening the survival of the migration and the livelihoods of local people,” she said.

“By ensuring the health of the ecosystems on which migration depends, the livelihoods of people across the migration landscape can be secured.”

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