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MALIK MARJAN







by Curtis Abraham



Around 61 AD and 62 AD the Roman Emperor Nero, infamous for his “fiddling while Rome burned” despite the fact that fiddles weren’t invented until the 10th century AD (he did, however, play the stringed lyre). Nevertheless, the quip was most likely a reference to Nero’s ineffectiveness as emperor in a time of crisis. And crises there were during the young emperor’s short reign.

 

Apart from the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD (incendium magnum Romae), Nero also had to deal with an annoying upstart by the name of Paul of Tarsus (“Paul the Apostle”) who arrived in Rome about AD 60-62 and was spreading the teachings of a certain Jesus of Nazareth (Nero is said to have blamed a rebellious new “cult of the Christians” for the Great Fire). Paul was put under house arrest is said to have been beheaded in Rome perhaps as part of the executions of Christians ordered by Nero following the great fire (although historical sources speak of imprisonment while others talk about him being decapitated. Paul’s death remains a mystery but is believed to have taken place after the Great Fire but prior to the last year of Nero’s rule in 68 AD).

 

There was also an Iron Age uprising to suppress. The warrior Queen Boudica of the Iceni people in eastern Britain, Norfolk County today, revolted against Roman rule. Her forces are said to have put to the sword tens of thousands of Romans and their followers. Nevertheless, she lost the war, but history remembers her as a Joan of d’Arc-esq figure-a female symbol for the struggle for justice and independence.

 

And yet, there were still distant lands to explore and conquer. In 61 AD, or thereabouts, Nero reportedly sent a small group of Praetorian Guards to explore the sources of the river Nile in “Ethiopia”, a generic name for Africa at the time-just like it had been in the days of Herodotus (Praetorians were the combined secret service and CIA of their day).

 

According to Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, one of Ancient Rome’s most prominent philosophers and dramatist who was also Nero’s tutor, advisor and, later, one of his victims wrote in Naturales quaestiones VI.8.3, that the expedition was based on the emperor's 'love of truth' (what else would one expect a philosopher to say for the motives of his most illustrious student).

 

Others, however, thought the emperor was scouting for a possible invasion of the “land of people with burnt skin”. Others still, imagined it was scientific exploration to discover the source of the river Nile (Egypt was already Romanized as Queen Cleopatra’s forces having been conquered by Octavian’s legions in 30 BC and became a province of the new Roman Empire upon its formation in 27 BC. Egypt came to serve as a major producer of grain for the empire and had a highly developed urban economy. It was by far the wealthiest Roman province outside of Italy). Pliny the Elder's Natural History, VI.XXXV, p. 181-187: suggest that the exploration was done in order to prepare a conquest of Ethiopia by Nero's legions.

 

In Classical times, Romans (and Greeks) in sub-Saharan Africa was not unusual. For Romans, West Africa and the Lake Chad region were particular destinations for their forces and trade and commerce groups for the empire. These groups also roamed across the Sahara and into the interior of Africa and its coast. Ethiopia and what is today Eritrea played host to Roman and Greek visitors in search of gold and spices from the fabled “Land of Punt”





The story goes that Nero’s forces navigated the Nile first reaching the city of Meroe on the east bank of the Nile, about 200 kilometres northeast of Khartoum, the Sudanese capital (Meroe was an area rich in iron ore that became a mecca of iron-working, iron tools and trade). From southern Egypt they proceeded up the Nile to the Sudd, which reportedly stopped them dead in their tracks.


The Sudd is a vast swamp in what is today the Republic of South Sudan. The area that the swamp covers, 57,000 kilometers2, or 22,000 square miles is one of the world's largest wetlands and the largest freshwater wetland in the Nile Basin region. In fact, it’s an important Ramsar Site that contains well over 400 bird species, 100 mammal species, and 100 fish species. 


(Linguistic analysis also indicates that South Sudan’s traditional Nilotic-speaking herders such as the Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer, were long time inhabitants of the Sudd marshes where they practiced transhumant pastoralism. In the 14th century, these tribes began migration out of the Sudd and into the rest of South Sudan, according to experts.)


South Sudan's protected areas are in the flood plains of the Nile River. The habitat predominantly comprises grasslands, high-altitude plateaus and escarpments, wooded and grassy savannas, floodplains and wetlands. Some of the other protected areas are the Boma National Park in the Boma-Jonglei Landscape region, an oil rich area on the eastern border with Ethiopia; the Southern National Park bordering Democratic Republic of the Congo; the Bandingilo National Park (including Mongalla)–8,400 km2 (3,200 sq mi); Nimule National Park–410 km2 (160 sq mi); and Shambe National Park, an important bird area–620 km2 (240 sq mi).


If the Romans had hung around for a while (perhaps some did, especially army units and private hunters who captured predatory wildlife for the fun and games that were held inside the Colosseum in Rome) they might have noticed that the Sudd plays a vital role in what is today one of the largest migration of mammals on Earth-a migration that rivals that of the more well-known wildebeest migration in East Africa.

                         

Dr. Malik Marjan is a South Sudanese wildlife biologist and conservationist. Currently, he’s an Associate Professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, University of Juba in South Sudan. He is also an Emerging Explorer at the National Geographic Society (NGS), Washington, D.C.

 

IN 2007, YOU, ECOLOGIST J. MICHAEL FAY AND OTHERS DISCOVERED PERHAPS THE LARGEST WILDLIFE MIGRATION IN THE WORLD IN SOUTH SUDAN BUT YOU BELIEVE YOUR ORIGINAL ESTIMATE TO BE MUCH HIGHER, WHY?


At the time we estimated the population of White-Eared Kob, Mongalla gazelles and Tiang, (an antelope related to the Topi) to be above 800,000 but we believe their numbers are well over one million. When we conducted the initial aerial survey, we used one airplane, a Cessna 172, but when you are using a single aircraft and the herds below you are massive then those have to be verified by total count techniques using several airplanes, which is what we are planning to do in the near future.


WHAT WENT THROUGH YOUR MIND WHEN YOU FIRST SAW THESE MASSIVE HERDS OF ANTELOPES AND GAZELLES FROM THE AIRPLANE? 

 

What came to my mind were feelings of success, happiness and joy. I felt that 5-years of [overland safaris on foot] in the South Sudan wilderness were vindicated by these aerial surveys. It also came to my mind that our conservation efforts would now be recognized by the international community and our conservation efforts supported.



 White ear Kob




WAS THIS AN UNKNOWN MIGRATION OR DID CONSERVATIONIST KNOW ABOUT IT FROM PREVIOUS TIMES?

 

There were previous studies on the migration of White-Eared Kob in South Sudan during the early to mid-1980s. These investigations were discussed in the doctoral dissertation of Dr. John M. Fryxell. But since then, nothing was done, and the landscape had seen heavy battles during 22 years of the armed conflict.

 

WHAT ELSE DID YOU DISCOVER?


We [also] found Besia Oryx and Nile Lechwe- two very rare antelope species, which some conservationists thought extinct in the region, [as well as] thousands of elephants, reedbucks and ostriches.


WILDLIFE WAS PROBABLY THE LAST THING ON YOUR MIND GROWING UP DURING THE TWO CIVIL WARS?


My early childhood coincided with the first civil war, which started in 1955 and ended in 1972 with the signing of the Addis Ababa Peace Accord. During that time my mother took us to live in Khartoum, but she could not cope with life there, so we moved back to Wau town in Western Bahr El-Ghazal State in the South. We stayed there until that war ended It was only then that my sibling and I were able to attend primary school.


HOW ELSE DID THE WARS AFFECT YOU?


The effects of the war were tough on our family. My father was killed at a wedding party in Wau in 1965 by the Sudan Army. That Wedding party was targeted because intellectuals, scientists, academics, politicians were thought to be attending. In this instance the groom was the son of a prominent chief. Then in 1991 my elder sister, who at the time was a nurse at Khartoum Teaching Hospital, was tortured by the state's brutal security service. She remains physically traumatized by the torture.


WHY DID YOU RETURN TO WAR-TORN SOUTH SUDAN IN 1999 WHEN MILLIONS OF PEOPLE WERE RUNNING AWAY FROM THE CONFLICT???


I thought would not be as effective professionally in my field of specialization if I remained as asylum seeker in London! In any event, the liberated areas under the SPLM/SPLA were safer than many places in the world. People were already living and working there. The SPLM/SPLA was, at that time, already receiving professionals who volunteered to return and help in rehabilitation, reconstruction and development work through civil societies and NGOs; therefore, I thought of returning and starting the New Sudan Wildlife Society and wildlife conservation activities.

 

WHAT WAS THE STATE OF WILDLIFE CONSERVATION WHEN YOU RETURNED TO SOUTH SUDAN IN 1999 FROM STUDYING IN THE UK?


All nature conservation activities had stopped because of the second civil war. There was no money for running programs and there were only a few South Sudanese who were still involved in conservation activities. We would meet in each other’s houses and then go on foot or by vehicle and count wildlife. People thought we were crazy. They reckoned that the rebels had slaughtered most of the wild animals for bushmeat and money from the sale of elephant ivory and rhino horn. But we proofed that was not true.


WHAT WERE SOME OF THE SCARIER MOMENTS DURING THESE INITIAL GROUND SURVEYS?


Landmines. There are thousands of landmines all over South Sudan. Fortunately, the locals helped us to avoid these areas. But there were other dangers like armed counter insurgency rebels but good nothing [bad] happened to us!



Dr. Marjan and colleague fitting a tracking collar on an elephant in South Sudan

 

 

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR LATEST FINDINGS ABOUT ANTELOPE MIGRATIONS IN SOUTH SUDAN?


One of the great mysteries was where did these antelopes spend the long rainy season? Using tracking collars with GPS satellite technology we were able to find out. We placed the collars on individual antelopes in selected groups that were geographically separated from each other. We learned that the White-Eared Kob has fairly regular migrations and they migrated in a cyclic patter on the plains below the Boma and Badingilu National Parks. We also found out that the Tiang migrate between the Nile and the vast plains in the Jonglei area. The migration patterns of the Mongalla Gazelles are still a mystery, but they seem to occur in areas between the Kob and Tiang migrations.


WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO KNOW THESE MIGRATION ROUTES?


Knowing the migration routes helps us with knowing which geographic areas need protection from poachers and encroachers. It also enables the Government of South Sudan and wildlife conservationists to help develop eco-tourism activities in and around these habitats. This will bring in needed foreign revenue.


CAN WAR AND ARMED CONFLICT INADVERTENTLY BE BENEFICIAL TO SOME ENDANGERED AND THREATENED WILDLIFE SPECIES?


In the case of South Sudan, the combatants were more or less confined to specific locations so there was not much encroachment into wildlife habitats. Also, the human populations had fled from their home areas en mass, which resulted in a decrease of human pressure on wildlife habitats and wildlife resources.





HOW IS THE GOVERNMENT OF SOUTH SUDAN PLANNING ON PROTECTING THESE RARE AND ENDANGERED SPECIES FROM THE GROWING ILLEGAL BUSHMEAT AND IVORY TRADES WHILE PROTECTING THEIR MIGRATION ROUTES FROM DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES SUCH AS OIL EXPLORATION AND MINING???


The Government has established the Ministry for Wildlife and Tourism, which was then under the leadership of Dr. Gabriel Changson . This body existed even during the civil war among the various secretariats established by the SPML/SPLA to run affairs in the liberated areas. One area that the GOSS is working on is the extensive training and re-training programs of wildlife conservation officers and rangers to fight poaching.  South Sudan’s wildlife policy addresses issues of land use planning and the cross-sectoral nature of land development issues. The Ministry is already engaging other government authorities on issues of land use planning to safeguard areas of wildlife, wildlife migrations routes and corridors with regard to the post-conflict development projects including oil and minerals explorations.  It is important to protect these corridors otherwise the migrations will disappear.

 

WHAT RESEARCH WOULD YOU LIKE TO CARRY OUT IN THE FUTURE?

 

I would like to investigate further what environmental factors, other than pasture and water availability influence the migratory species preferences in spending several months in their current wet season ranges, given the fact that these areas are within the oil concessions map. We are also planning surveys to count elephants and the migratory species to validate estimates from sample counts conducted in the previous years. I would like also to study the effects of climate change on the wildlife migration corridors and indigenous people’s livelihoods in order to identify its overall impacts on the survival of wildlife migrations of South Sudan.

 

WHAT IMPLICATIONS DOES THE ARMED CONFLICTS IN SOUTH SUDANHAVE FOR YOUR WORK AND WILDLIFE CONSERVATION IN THE FUTURE?


Armed conflicts, if continued, would definitely hamper my future research plans and fieldwork. For starters, poaching would increase, and our conservation programs would not be implemented. On top of that, wildlife-based tourism will be affected, and this will harm the incomes of local people and the country as a whole. Funding institutions would definitely be reluctant to support our efforts. It's worth remembering that armed conflict causes displacement and forced movement of people, which could put a strain on conservation areas in South Sudan.

 



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