South Sudan: A Lost Eden Recovering
The evil that men do affects wildlife, too. But when men stop doing evil, sometimes the animals come back.
The horrors that people suffered during the civil war in Sudan is enough to break your heart. Nick Perry writes in AFP News,
Ruinous civil wars have left South Sudan with few paved roads or airstrips. It is the size of France but huge swathes are isolated or impenetrable.
Decades of religious intolerance left this large country in shambles. Pick any human evil you know: genocide, torture, terrorism, dictatorship, war, disease, hate, murder… is that enough for starters? Add to that poaching that has decimated wildlife numbers, and you start to see that South Sudan is not the kind of place scientists would care to go for field work.
Consequently, little is known about the wildlife resources in this large country. Some 400,000 people died in the decades-long war that ended in 2011 with South Sudan seceding from the Republic of Sudan (Townhall.com), which is 97% Muslim. South Sudan is predominantly Christian but also has animist tribal beliefs.
And yet, Perry informs us, South Sudan has long had national parks. About 15% of the land is national parks and reserves, “land in theory protected by law, but overseen by an underfunded wildlife department.” A warden in Boma National Park in the country’s east interior recounts the losses from the war:
“Before the war people would use dogs, or spears, and just catch a few animals, and were satisfied with that. But now with automatic rifles, it’s become harder for wildlife. Bigger species have vanished from the area.”
In the decades-long war for liberation from Sudan, zebras and rhinos, once abundant in the southern region that became the new nation of South Sudan in 2011, were hunted to extinction.
Antelope and giraffe were slaughtered to feed soldiers on all sides.
Elephants—numbering some 80,000, 50 years ago—were wholesale massacred for ivory to fund the fighting.
Their numbers are reduced to an estimated 2,000 today.
South Sudan’s new government, more tolerant of religious diversity, has a long path ahead to get back to peace. A peace deal was signed in September 2018, Perry says. This year, Austin Bay reported on the tenuous power-sharing arrangement that the new government hopes will end the fighting (Townhall.com). Bay uses the term ‘civil war’ advisedly, since it might better be labeled ethnic hatred between the Nuer and Dinka tribes.
Terrible doesn’t adequately describe South Sudan’s war. The conflict, which still flickers, has killed an estimated 400,000 people, though no one knows precisely. Accurate body counts involving forensic analysis of mass graves require peace. However, 400,000 dead and over 3 million displaced are conscience-shocking numbers. They are big enough to demand attention.
Leaders of the two tribes shook hands and sought reconciliation on February 26, 2020. If it lasts, it will give the animals a respite, too. Perry says that a hopeful rebound is already being seen in this “unexplored Eden of biodiversity” by aerial surveys and camera traps.
The wildlife endured, hiding out in mighty swamps and dense bushland, just as during past conflicts.
And the great columns of antelope and gazelle that first put South Sudan on the global conservation map continued their circular movements.
The country’s wild reaches keep throwing up surprises, too, buoying optimism for the future.
In recent years, rare and elusive species like bongos, painted dogs and red colobus monkeys have been photographed by conservation group Fauna and Flora International, inviting speculation about what else lurks in this underexplored land.
The Sorry History of Human-Infested Wildlife Ecosystems
Animals thrive more when people obey their first mandate, to tend the garden and care for it (Genesis 1:26-31). Disobedience to that mandate has a long history. Roman emperors sent hunters to Africa to bring back wild animals for the arenas, to watch gladiators kill them, or to watch the animals kill Christians. Wild animals have long been prized as trophies for hunters.* And in Australia, scientists debate whether the continent’s megafauna were driven to extinction by early humans (Nature Communications 18 May 2020), just as other scientists argue about whether humans killed off all the large beasts in North America: American lions, saber-tooth cats, giant sloths, mastodons, mammoths and other such mammals whose bones can be seen at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.
*Hunting is defensible if sustainable. Sometimes wildlife reductions through hunting are beneficial to an ecosystem. People need to eat, too. Hunting was permitted in the Bible. But this is very different from poaching elephants illegal for their ivory, or mass-slaughtering defenseless animals purely for sport, the way some 19th-century Americans shot buffalo from railroad cars, or the way native Americans stampeded whole herds of buffalo off cliffs. Ethical hunters—even trophy hunters—take into account the impact of their actions on the herd and the ecosystem. Many people would never experience the wonder of a large mammal from the Serengeti without zoos or natural history museums. These kinds of takings can actually educate people toward appreciation and respect for wildlife.
Eco-Tourism: A Win-Win Policy
Now, with success stories from Rwanda and Uganda, which had similar conflicts, South Sudan is looking for a better way to run a country. “Also convulsed by past conflict, today they are safe and popular destinations for tourists and their holiday money.” That’s especially surprising when the Rwanda Genocide of 1994 saw up to a million people massacred in just three months.
South Sudan’s tattered economy is hinged on oil and any other ways of generating jobs and revenue—such as conservation management or ecotourism—will be critical in future, Omoli said.
“What does it (the wildlife) do? It brings tourists… They will pay the money, and the money will be used for development,” Omoli, who was replaced in February when South Sudan formed a new coalition government, told AFP.
When the animals feel it is safe to come out of hiding, this ravaged Eden may become another wonder of the world.
Eden is gone, of course; there is no safe space from the curse. But God “did not leave Himself without witness” Paul said to pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:17). Even in the economy of predators and prey, the natural world is still a place of beauty and fascination to people who fear the Lord. Who could not marvel at the strength of an elephant, the speed of a cheetah, and the gymnastics of a gibbon? The fallen creation is still maintained by God’s care; otherwise He would have burned it all up in an instant.
During the age of human evil in which we live, contemplating creation still arouses praise and awe. Psalms about nature, like Psalm 8, Psalm 19, Psalm 104 and Psalm 148 make this clear:
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
The cliffs are a refuge for the shephanim [rock badgers]
19 He made the moon for the seasons;
The sun knows the place of its setting.
20 You appoint darkness and it becomes night,
In which all the beasts of the forest prowl about.
21 The young lions roar after their prey
And seek their food from God.
22 When the sun rises they withdraw
And lie down in their dens.
23 Man goes forth to his work
And to his labor until evening.
24 O Lord, how many are Your works!
In wisdom You have made them all;
The earth is full of Your possessions. (Psalm 104)
The Genesis Mandate was never revoked, but man’s power over nature was limited, and the work became much more difficult, even if righteous people wished to obey it. Add selfishness, pride and hatred into the equation, and mankind can ravage the creation, as happened in South Sudan and other parts of the world.
The priority for people now is to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Getting right with God lifts the curse in the individual heart; the rest of creation will have to wait (Romans 8:18-23). But how much better for righteousness to predominate among people, to have responsible communities who care for the animals instead of poaching them and slaughtering them. Let’s hope South Sudan flourishes with Wildlife Safari tour buses and thriving national parks as it seeks a new path forward.
For previous articles on other ‘Living Eden’ sites in the world today, see:
- New Guinea (7 Feb 2006)
- Iraqi marshlands (18 Jan 2011)
- Brazil’s “Islands in the Sky” (9 Aug 2012)
- Seamounts (7 Nov 2016)