Africa’s second largest migration

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From January to June at least half a million antelopes converge on a vast savannah east of the White Nile, an area including the Sudd wetlands of South Sudan and the western Ethiopian swamps of Gambella. This mass movement of tiang and white-eared kob is Africa’s second largest terrestrial wildlife migration, second only to the Serengeti’s teeming masses of wildebeest.

For so long this spectacle has gone under the tourism radar, its remote location and political instability meaning that very few people witness it every year.

We asked Steve Turner of Origins Safaris to tell us more, and to share some photos from a recent trip. His company is now offering the opportunity for wildlife lovers to join them on a pioneering expedition to be among the first modern-day adventurers to penetrate these roadless and inaccessible swamps.

The Sudd
The Sudd is a vast swamp in South Sudan, formed by the White Nile’s Baḥr al-Jabal(meaning “Sea of the Mountain” in Arabic) section. The Arabic word suddis derived from sadd, meaning “barrier” or “obstruction”. The area which the swamp covers is one of the world’s largest wetlands and the largest freshwater wetland in the Nile basin. The shallow, flat inland delta covers an area of 500km between Mongalla in the south to Malakal in the north, and 200km east to west along the Bahr el Ghazal.

The wetlands comprise a complex maze of ecosystems, ranging from open water and submerged vegetation to floating fringe vegetation, seasonally flooded grasslands, rain-fed grassland and finally, floodplain woodlands.

The Sudd is recognised for its unique ecological attributes that include a large population of resident and Palaearctic migratory birds. Over 400 species of bird are found here, including Great White Pelican, Black Crowned Crane, White Stork, Black Tern and the largest population of Shoebill in Africa, at an estimated 5000.

As the surrounding landscape is a large swath of dry Sahel, the swamps, floodplains and grasslands support various endangered mammalian species, especially antelopes such as the endangered Nile lechwe, tiang, Mongalla gazelle and the world’s largest population of white-eared kob. These antelopes make large-scale migrations (approximately half a million) over the relatively undisturbed habitat of the Sudd.

Other notable resident species include elephant, buffalo, reedbuck and sitatunga. If you keep a keen eye, you will also be able to see crocodiles lounging in the shallow waters.

Gambella National Park
Gambella is the largest national park in Ethiopia, covering 5,061 sq km. Although largely ignored, it was established as a protected area in 1973 to conserve the diverse assemblage of wildlife and unique habitats that are found along the Baro River, one of the country’s important tributaries to the Nile.

Situated in a lowland plain, with areas of higher, often rocky, ground, deciduous woodland and savanna, Gambella also supports extensive areas of wet grassland and swamps that are continuous with the Sudd. Here the native grasses grow over three metres in height.

Unsurprisingly, Gambella is teeming with a wide variety of wildlife. Some 69 species of mammal are protected in the park, including the last Ethiopian population of the endangered Nubian giraffe, Nile lechwe and Lelwel hartebeest. Other mammals we often see are lion, leopard, buffalo, hyena, warthog and elephant. There are a few primate species, such as the olive baboon, Blue Nile patas monkey, givet or Ethiopian white whiskered vervet monkey and black and white colobus. The Baro River is host to crocodile and 92 species of fish, with Nile perch reportedly weighing up to 100kg.

In recent years, Ethiopia has rightly been recognised as one of Africa’s leading birding destinations. Its avifauna represents an interesting mixture of eastern and West African, Palearctic and endemic components. There are 372 species of birds recorded in the park, which are plentiful and easy to spot. The park includes Ethiopia’s only population of Shoebill, as well as species such as Uelle Paradise Whydah, Red-throated Bee-eater, Little Green Bee-eater, Egyptian Plover, Pygmy Sunbird, Black-faced and Bar-breasted Firefinches.

The white-eared kob migration
The white-eared kob is a medium sized, chestnut (female) or black and white (adult male) coloured antelope. From January until June, the animals move en masse north and east, from the floodplains of the Sudd and Bandingilo National Park across to Boma National Park and into Gambella National Park in Ethiopia.

Keeping ahead of the rains they are joined by other antelopes – the tiang and Mongalla gazelles. The scale of this seasonal wildlife migration is still yet to be fully understood but as many as half a million plus animals travel in tightly packed columns that can stretch a staggering distance. In the dry season months from November to January, the direction of the migration is reversed, with the animals returning in search of nutritious grasses, watered and made rich by the silt left behind by the flooding of the White Nile.

To learn more about how you can join the kob migration, visit http://originsafaris.com/sudd-migration-ss/

This gallery of images features kob, Black lechwe, elephants and buffalo, in Gambella National Park. All images taken by Steve Turner, used with permission. To view them full size, click on one of them and click through them.

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