The greatest land mammal migration on Earth is taking place – and it’s not the Serengeti

Article written by Don Pinnock
Originally published by Daily Maverick (Jun 25, 2024)

In an area you’ve probably never heard of, the largest movement of land mammals on the planet is under way.

Each year millions of white-eared kob, Mongalla gazelle, tiang and Bohor reedbuck migrate across the Boma Badingilo Jonglei Landscape in South Sudan. A survey just completed by African Parks and the Sudanese Wildlife Ministry counted about six million antelope.

The findings confirm a remarkable and unmatched wildlife phenomenon across a landscape of immense ecological importance which is largely unknown to the rest of the world.

The survey covered 122,774km2, encompassing the entire known range of the four main migratory antelope species in the Great Nile Migration. Data from 251 tracking collars on large mammals was also integrated, providing a wide understanding of the region’s ecological dynamics which includes parts of South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Red lechwe on the move

Announcing the survey results, South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit said it confirmed that the country remained rich in biodiversity with some of Africa’s most beautiful animals.

“The results of this survey are nothing short of staggering,” said Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks.

“The astonishing scale of the migration is only equalled by the responsibility to ensure that it survives into the future in an extremely complex landscape.”

War and commercial poaching have been an ongoing threat to the migration.

Antelope reedbuck and giraffes

“This wildlife and larger ecosystem is the basis for survival for multiple ethnic groupings which are often in conflict with each other over resources,” said Fearnhead.

“Successful management of this landscape will only be possible through building trust with and amongst these ethnic groupings.”

Many ethnic groups live within the Boma Badingilo Jonglei Landscape, including the Dinka, Murle, Anyuak, Jie, Toposa, Nyangatom, Nuer, Mudari, Bari, Lokyoya, Madi, Lolubo, Ari, Lopit, Latuka, Boya and Didinga. Each of these communities has deep cultural traditions and activities that are firmly embedded and heavily reliant on wildlife.

The combined survey of white-eared kob, tiang, Mongalla gazelle and Bohor reedbuck counted just under 5,900,000 individuals. No black rhinos were seen – they are thought to have gone extinct in the 1980s. Zebras have also not been seen in the area since 2008, and buffalo were absent except on the periphery of the Sudd Swamp and along the Ethiopian border near Gambella.

Traditional Sudanese village

The survey flights encountered massive populations of open-billed, marabou, yellow-billed, Abdim’s and woolly-necked storks, black-crowned cranes, herons and several species of vultures.

The survey used two aircraft equipped with cameras that captured over 330,000 images. A team of seven graduates from the University of Juba, trained in specialised software, analysed 59,718 photos across 64 transects to document wildlife presence.

Situated in the east of South Sudan, the Boma Badingilo Jonglei Landscape forms part of a larger 200,000km2 ecosystem that stretches east of the Nile, covering Central Equatoria State, Eastern Equatoria State, Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area. This immense landscape is critically important to the Sudd Swamps – the largest wetlands in Africa and the second largest in the world.

Wildebeest great migration

African Parks, which conducted the survey, is a non-profit conservation organisation that takes on the responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of protected areas in partnership with governments and local communities.

It currently manages 22 national parks and protected areas in 12 countries covering over 20 million hectares in Angola, Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

It recently bought the farm owned by rhino breeder John Hume and is presently rewilding his 2,000 rhinos on to protected areas across the continent.

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