CONFLICTS TURN TOURISM INTO A HIGHLY ENDANGERED SPECIES IN SOUTH SUDAN
(Posted 07th July 2013)
Once thought of as Africa’s last safari and expedition frontier, attracting huge attention following the features on National Geographic TV ‘The Great Migrations’ has South Sudan’s tourism industry been made captive and held hostage by events beyond the sector’s sphere of influence.
The events over the past 2 years since independence on the 09th of July 2011 along the joint border with the Republic of Sudan, often commonly referred to as Khartoum Sudan or North Sudan, which led to the suspension of oil production by the South, left the entire country reeling from lack of cash to pay for salaries, infrastructure and even to allocate foreign exchange to repatriate funds – with Kenya’s Jetlink airline becoming the most notable victim of that situation. Aggression and ethnic cleansing on a significant scale inside the three states of Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Abyei, which wish to join South Sudan in order to attain independence from the slave masters in Khartoum, have sent waves of new refugees fleeing into South Sudan to escape Khartoum’s regular army troops and proxy militias, both notorious for implementing a ‘burnt earth’ policy of wholesome destruction, looting, rape and murder. Large scale displacement of people living inside South Sudan, following the repeated aerial bombardment by Khartoum airforce planes and incursions by Khartoum troops into Southern territory, and the renewed use by Khartoum of proxy militias to cause constant armed conflict, also did little to reassure regular travellers and even the most hardened adventurers have started to give the South Sudanese parks a wide berth, with arrivals trickling down all the time.
But the worst blow came when the famous Boma National Park came under attack two months ago by the Khartoum sponsored militia of David Yau Yau and the park warden and several of his staff were killed. Crucial park infrastructure was destroyed, robbing any potential clients, for the time being, of even the most basic of facilities.
In particular Kenya based adventure travel firms immediately pulled back when the news of that attack broke, largely in view of potential insurance issues, as travel into an open warzone is not covered by liability insurance, and travel insurance of individuals too lapses when heading into such hot zones.
And it was in particular the Boma National Park which suffered, as it is in combination with the Sudd and the Bandingalo Game Reserve combining to provide the stomping grounds one of the world’s greatest migrations. Unfortunately little is known about it to the wider world and beyond the expert lore told among aficionados of roughing it deep in the bush for the privilege to see up to 2 million animals congregate once a year and then go their separate ways again, back to their home ranges.
White eared kobs, tiang antelopes and mongalla gazelles make up these huge numbers, followed of course by predators and interspersed by elephant and buffalo.
It is widely feared that in particular the elephant, long protected under the SPLA rule before the CPA came into effect and the country became independent, are now targeted by militias to sell the blood ivory, then exported either via Khartoum and Port Sudan, arguably with little obstacles though at a much greater distance, or via Uganda and Kenya to Mombasa, where time and again major consignments are seized by vigilant customs officials.
From usually well informed sources it was learned, that inspite of the efforts by the Wildlife Conservation Society, arguably the biggest donor and supporter of the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism in South Sudan, they country is fighting a losing battle. Only recently did WCS and the ministry staff in a combined project collar elephant to establish their range, migration patterns and monitor the potential impact of poaching gangs on the social structures of the eles, but only about 5.000 elephant are thought to remain inside South Sudan, numbers considered barely adequate to ensure the long term survival of the species.
As a result of the political quagmire situation in South Sudan, where only last week the Vice President made his intention known to stand during the next presidential elections in a clear challenge to incumbent Salva Kiir, who only weeks ago stripped him of a number of functions and powers, and furthermore because of the ongoing on again off again conflict with neighbours Khartoum Sudan, were strongly worded travel advisories issued which for all practical purpose will not just keep ‘regular mainstream tourists’ away but have also started to affect the segment of intrepid adventure travellers, who otherwise so often continue to visit such fringe destinations inspite of such warnings.
The few tourism operators inside South Sudan are putting a brave face to these developments and have by and large cancelled their 2013 safaris and expeditions to Boma National Park while trying to find alternative parks and reserves to take the clients to.
Khartoum’s latest broadside against the South, the closure of the pipeline to Port Sudan, the one and presently only export route for the oil coming from South Sudan, has pushed the government in Juba with the back to the wall, as hopes of renewed cash flow, and with it the ability to pay wages and bills, once more seems to slip away, as was the case during the self inflicted export stop of oil which came into effect last year as a result of hostilities in Abyei.
As in many similar cases, where conflict impacts on a nascent tourism industry – like seen right now in Mozambique – only time will tell to what level South Sudan’s tourism sector can recover from these blows, and while there is always hope, reality at present speaks a different language, for now at least. I for one do have hope left that a lasting political solution between the north and south can be found, and implemented under African Union supervision, which will allow for tourists to come and see the great spectacle of the Boma migration, traverse the Sudd, explore the other four national parks and 14 game reserves across the country, or boat the River Nile which is known here as Bahr el Jebel. Watch this space.