The Loom

The Hidden Herds

Nine years ago I had the opportunity to visit southern Sudan. With a few other reporters, I flew from Nairobi to Lokichokio in northern Kenya, where we prepared to cross the border. A man took our passports and told us he’d hold onto them till we got back. We climbed into another plane loaded with medical supplies and took off again, into a land that had been at war for 15 years.

I found the place eerie in its quiet. We were far from the front lines, and so you could forget that there was a war going on, except for the occasional word of government planes in the air, potentially carrying bombs. The war made itself known where we were in subtler, but no less devastating ways. Sleeping sickness, which had been brought under control in the years before the war, was on the rise again, and only a few doctors were braving the war to try to stop it. For more on that particular story, see this piece I wrote in 1998 for Discover, which I adapted for my book, Parasite Rex. Also, the doctors later published a paper describing the outbreak you can read for free here. Everyone who came on that trip was struck by the beauty of the place, the strange fields of termite mounds, the wooded slopes. But we could never imagine how many people could ever come to see it.

Things have changed. The civil war in southern Sudan is over. Sleeping sickness has been reined in, although not wiped out. And, as I report in today’s New York Times, wildlife biologists have conducted the first aerial survey of southern Sudan. The western part of the region appears to have been pretty well stripped of wildlife, which certainly accords with what I saw–or didn’t see nine years ago. But towards the east, it’s a different story. In fact, the biologists have documented migrations of gazelle and antelope rivaling–or perhaps surpassing the great herds of the Serengeti. They are among the great secrets of modern wildlife biology.

It is strange to talk to these biologists, and hear them gush about how someday soon, tourists might make a quick flight up from Nairobi into the heart of this riot of nature. Perhaps someday I will be able to return to see it. I hope I can hold onto my passport this time.

Here is my article.

Here’s the Times science podcast where I discuss the story.

And, finally, here’s more from the Wildlife Conservation Society.


  1. #1 Rich Reynolds
    June 15, 2007


    Africa appears, to me, as a microcosm of the Earth as a whole, in many ways.

    That non-Africans (and even some native Africans) ignore the continent, and its diverse elements, is baffling, and not racially induced as some contend.

    Once colonizers (Britain mostly) intruded upon the area then abandoned it Africa became, for some strange, unknown reason, “land mass non grata.”

    It’s a beautiful place, as you often note, and will still be intact after the Middle east, Europe perhaps, and North America go under from wars and ecological disasters; that is, Africa will survive so long as the rest of the world doesn’t keep intruding.

    Even the insertion of western medical practices seem iffy to me.

    Thanks for your always excellent reportage.


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