November 1, 2007 (OPEKOLOE, Sudan) — The fleeing hippos had left a tunnel-like path through the tall grass and deep footprints in the mud as they exited this island in the White Nile to nearby, papyrus-covered islands. Few things can dislodge a large herd of these fierce beasts — except maybe an even larger herd of elephants.
- An elephant grazes at the Opekoloe Island in the White Nile river, southern Sudan, Friday, Oct. 12, 2007. (AP)
And there they were: some 50 elephants, massive black figures peacefully grazing on their newly reclaimed territory on the island of Opekoloe.
"To anyone who thought they’d disappeared forever, it’s like magic," said Lt. Col. Charles Joseph, deputy warden of south Sudan’s Nimule national park near the border with Uganda, barely containing his excitement as he waded in knee-deep water through reeds to approach the herd.
Sudan’s 22-year civil war between North and South — Africa’s longest and bloodiest conflict, killing some two million people — drove out nearly all the south’s elephants along with large numbers of other wildlife.
Now after two years of relative peace, they’re back in this area of south Sudan — in one of the world’s most dramatic movements of animals. Wildlife services estimate 7,000 elephants have returned, along with some 1,500 giraffes and about 500 oryx antelopes, both thought to have left the country forever. Lions, leopards and a wide variety of gazelles, some of them unique to Sudan, are being spotted, too.
In a February aerial survey, the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society estimated herds of antelope and gazelle numbered 1.3 million.
"It could well be the largest mammal migration on Earth," said Paul Elkan, the society’s south Sudan country director.
The reappearance of the elephants is one of the greatest symbols of southern Sudanese hopes for peace — they’re a source of pride and national identity for the ethnic African southerners dreaming of independence from the north.
But the elephants are returning to a fragile region. The 2005 peace deal with the Arab-dominated Khartoum government in the north is tottering — and if it collapses, war could return.
On Opekoloe island, some of the elephants cooled themselves neck-deep in the marshy Nile waters, occasionally lifting their trunks to sniff at the humans close by. Others stood farther up on the island’s high ground, munching at trees.
"Nobody expects to see them, and look, they’re only five meters away!" said Joseph, who was among park officials showing off the island to an Associated Press reporter, the first international journalist to see the elephants since their return.
A small group of fishermen from the Madi tribe native to this region had set up camp on the island’s edge. They said the herd had returned to Sudan about a year ago, crossing from Uganda. "We’re at peace with them, and they don’t mind us," said Charles Molini, the group’s chief.
The largest mammals on earth, elephants live in herds that migrate through vast territories. They can live for decades, and their memory is legendary. Wardens in Nimule say about 350 elephants have crossed over the border with Uganda into the park.
The southerners’ pride in the majestic animals is clear. The wardens insisted that only herds originally from the area have returned, saying the elephants were driven by a desire to come home, since there is no threat of violence chasing them out of neighboring Uganda or Kenya.
"If they’re coming back, it’s because they know where their homeland is," said Maj. Gen. Alfred Akwoch, the undersecretary of south Sudan’s Ministry of Environment, Wildlife Conservation and Tourism.
Lone elephant elders were first spotted exploring their old territories, and Akwoch noted, "When they see the region is at peace and that no one shoots them, they bring back their whole family."
Sudan’s civil war pitted Khartoum’s Arab and Muslim elite against Christian and animist ethnic African southerners. The war, separate from the current violence in western Sudan’s Darfur region, ended with a 2005 peace agreement that granted southerners a role in a national unity government, created an autonomous southern government and promised a 2011 referendum on the South’s independence.
However, southerners accuse the North of violating the peace deal and — in a dramatic step — the former rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement quit the national unity government earlier this month to demand the pact’s fulfillment.
Pagan Amum, the SPLM’s secretary general, said the south is tired of fighting and will work to avert a new clash. "We want this land to re-flourish, and people to be able to enjoy it at last," he said.
Southern officials are hoping that if peace holds, tourism can help fund their cash-strapped state. The autonomous government plans to open a safari lodge at Nimule next year and hopes to draw 1,000 tourists in the first year.
Authorities then plan to reopen a dozen national parks or game reserves throughout south Sudan, a vast, subtropical region nearly the size of France whose human population of 8 million is vastly outnumbered by wild animals.
Not all animals were killed or chased out by the war. Large herds took refuge from the battles and from poachers in a vast, impenetrable zone of swamps in south Sudan’s heartland known as the Sudd.
Col. Paul Adot, Nimule’s chief warden, vows to protect the elephant herds from poachers in the 1,000-square kilometer (400 square-mile) park. The 190 wardens — many of them former SPLM soldiers — share 20 automatic rifles, one jeep and two motorcycles.
Adot is staunchly Christian and complains about decades of forced Islamization and Arabization by Khartoum. He said he was an SPLM officer and his father was tortured to death in the war. Like many in the South, he hints — but won’t say directly — that he hopes the 2011 referendum leads to independence.
He said wildlife has been his passion since he was a child, listening to village elders tell stories of the animals.
"There was the elephant, the hare, and nasty mister hyena," he chuckled. "We have always lived side by side with the animals."
Overlooking Nimule Park’s vast savannah, he pointed toward the bend in the river where the elephants grazed. "We want to make sure they stay," he said.