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A massive herd of animals thought to have been wiped out by decades of civil war in Southern Sudan has survived against the odds and could be one of the largest migrations of large mammals on the planet.

The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society delivered that assessment Tuesday, unveiling the results of an aerial survey that revealed the existence of more than 1.2 million antelope, gazelle, elephants and other animals.

"This is wonderful news for the world and Southern Sudan," Wildlife Conservation Society President Steven Sanderson said at a news conference.

Conservationist Michael Fay who conducted the survey said he had never seen wildlife in such numbers, "not even while flying over the mass migrations of the Serengeti."

"This could represent the biggest migration of large mammals on Earth," he said.

However animals in the region remain at risk because hunters still have automatic weapons to decimate herds, said Paul Elkan, director of the group’s Southern Sudan program. Also thousands of refugees are returning to the region and oil exploration is taking place within migration corridors.

A survey of Southern Sudan’s wildlife had not been done since the early 1980s because of civil war that raged for two decades before a peace deal in 2005. A separate civil war erupted in the Darfur region of western Sudan four years ago.

CONSERVATIONISTS STUNNED

Based on experiences in other regions where war ravaged man and animals, such as in Angola and Mozambique, officials said they had believed wildlife in Southern Sudan would also have been badly hit.

Not all areas within Southern Sudan have fared well in preserving wildlife. Southern National Park, situated west of the Nile, experienced an estimated 90 percent loss of some species since the early 1980s.

"We saw no buffalo where in 1981 there were an estimated 60,000," Elkan said. "And only one group of elephants was sighted where some 10,000 had been estimated to roam in the past."

But for reasons yet to be explained, some animal herds remained intact, and in a few instances, actually increased from levels documented in a survey about 25 years ago.

White-eared cob, a species of antelope, numbered 800,000 in Southern Sudan, Fay said, adding that he had been skeptical of anecdotal field reports that said thousands of cob could still be found. "I thought, ’That’s crazy."’

But in January, after an arduous process to get permission, Fay and others replicated a 1980s wildlife survey, flying 150 hours in a small airplane over 58,000 square miles .

It is rare to see large groups of animals in Africa outside protected areas, but once the spotting team’s plane crossed into Southern Sudan from Kenya, Fay said they were stunned.

"It looked like the entire landscape was moving with cob," Fay said. "It was infested. These are 100-kilo antelope. ... If anything we underestimated the number of animals."
 
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