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JUBA - By Philip Winter - 14 May 2013

Feature: The Ghosts of Badingilu

In the new nation of South Sudan the rhythm of life is mostly determined by the rise and fall of the White Nile and the seasonal rains which bring new grass to the savannahs and woodlands of this harsh but fertile land. On the east bank of the Nile, an open savannah, with patches of woodland, stretches from the river to the highlands of Ethiopia. It is a great wilderness, comparable perhaps with the Serengeti or the Kalahari, containing some seasonal watercourses and pools which last until the end of the dry season.  One of these, Badingilu Pool, was described by Peter Molloy, in the 1950s, in three articles and a book, “The Cry of the Fish Eagle”. As far as he knew, the pool provided the only water between the village of Lafon, about 100km east of Juba, and the Nile. It was used by elephants as they moved between the mountains and the river and also by giraffe, buffalo, roan antelope, eland, ostrich, tiang, hartebeeste, zebra, reedbuck, Mongalla gazelle, warthogs, hyenas, wild dogs and lions. A variety of ducks, storks, pelicans, egrets, herons and ibis could be seen there too. 

I never visited the pool when I lived in Juba in the late 1970s but I heard about it from the current Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism, Charles Acire, then a young wildlife officer. He had gone there at the end of the first civil war, in 1973, and told me later that the animals were entirely undisturbed by his presence. During the war, I heard about the pool again: when the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) split into factions in 1991, Bor was attacked and many people killed. Survivors fled south, some down the main road to Juba and some through the bush in what they called the “Tingili Desert”.  Many of these survivors succumbed to dehydration and died as they tried to reach safety further south in the camps of Ame, Aswa and Ateppi. The SPLA too miscalculated early in the war when dispatching a unit of soldiers from Lafon towards Mongalla, believing that there would be water in the pool. The soldiers arrived and, finding the pool dry, sent a messenger to ask for help - help never arrived and a good number died of thirst.

Today, the people of the area refer to the wide-open spaces east of the White Nile as “the Sahara” – the place without water. Knowing this, I was cautious when I first tried to reach the pool with Matt Rice of Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in February 2011. Like Molloy sixty years before, we bashed straight through the bush from the Juba-Mongalla road, coming out into to a shallow depression of dried mud which we thought to be Bala Pool. With only one vehicle and one of our tyres already ripped open by a tree stump, we decided to go no further but to camp where we were. Our reward was to see the largest number of wild animals I had seen in Southern Sudan since before the war, two species in good numbers, the Bohor Reedbuck and the Mongalla Gazelle. They seemed relatively tame, some stopping to look at us in surprise as we passed, others bounding off in graceful leaps. We also disturbed a venerable warthog, sleeping under the tree where we pitched camp, and saw a group of eland departing in the distance with a couple of ostriches. During the night, we heard lion, leopard and hyena calling.

A reconnaissance later in 2011 enabled us to establish that there was now a track across Badingilu which was used mostly by Murle coming from Pibor with cattle to sell in Juba. Furthermore, Badingilu, gazetted as a national park in 1983 – the year the civil war broke out – now enjoyed in theory some protection and was endowed with a headquarters and a small ranger outpost, courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the US taxpayer. The rangers were nonetheless nervous when we asked to follow the track, explaining that they had just had a firefight not far away with soldiers from the nearby SPLA base, who were poaching in the park.

We could not return until January 2012, early in the dry season. This time we were given four rangers to guide and guard us, one of them a Murle who knew the track. But the rains of 2011 were poor and, after leaving the initial forest belt and crossing into dry grass plains, we found ourselves in a wasteland of heat and dust. We pushed on for more than 40 km, seeing no sign of a pool or at all, other than a slight, dry depression which our guides insisted was a “khor”, a seasonal river. We asked where the next water was and were told it was in the Khor Veveno – two days’ walk ahead. So we stopped and camped in a small grove of trees, woken before dawn by two lions, one to the north and one to the south of us, communicating whatever lions communicate with their unmistakable roars and grunts. We rose at dawn and made our way back to Juba, disappointed that the fabled pool had apparently disappeared.

In the dry season of 2013, I got a new permit to go into the park and made overnight visits to Bala Pool, finding two waterholes much nearer the road, and also to an area along the Nile, Fura, where we were told the animals drank if the pools inland were dry. The Bala waterholes were clearly well used both by wildlife and by poachers – the rangers showed us an extensive poachers’ camp they had dismantled, carting the skulls and horns of reedbuck, gazelles an eland and a hartebeeste back to the park headquarters along with the desiccated carcass of a roan antelope.

Backed up by six rangers, each with an AK 47 and two magazines, we headed off once more up the track late in March 2013, the end of the dry season. Where in the previous year there had been dust and bare soil, the plains were still covered in metre- high golden grass. Mongalla gazelles and reedbuck burst away from us as we made our way slowly through the woodland and into the plains. Not far ahead of the place where we had turned back in 2012, we started to see a lot of kites and storks flying above the tree-line. Soon we found a depression in the road, in which there shimmered a little water, framed by fresh green grass. Storks and egrets flew off as we got out of the car. We had only an hour of daylight left so we made camp a few hundred metres off the track, overlooking another green, grassy depression We heard the reedbucks’ alarm whistle as we went to sleep under a bright moon. Later the sky grew cloudy. Later still a heavy wind blew and then, at 5 a.m., a few drops of rain sprinkled us awake. In the distance a lion grunted and a hyena howled.

In the morning, we walked south for half an hour, suddenly seeing a shallow muddy pool, shrunken from its widest extent, in which a clump of catfish heaved and struggled to survive in the vanishing waters. A gaggle of Marabou storks stood in the shallow water watching, apparently unable to catch anything. We had at last found the elusive Badingilu Pool. On its bank, we also found the decaying leg of a lion, perhaps shot by a passing cattle herder. Its ignoble end made me think of the hundreds of thousands of animals shot in Sudan’s two civil wars.  Their loss has impoverished South Sudan just as wars impoverished its people, more than two million of whom died, some at this very pool, a place now haunted, I thought, by ghosts both animal and human.

People recover in time, as wildlife populations can too, where the habitat remains intact, as in much of South Sudan. Wildlife there nonetheless remains threatened by the widespread availability of weapons and the sentiment that people are entitled to eat or sell their wildlife. So elephants and buffaloes in South Sudan have been reduced to the low thousands; both white and black rhinoceros may be extinct; zebra and giraffe, waterbuck and hartebeest are dwindling. Tourism, much extolled as a possible source of income more sustainable than oil, could help, but is proving difficult to start in a hot country with little infrastructure, an uncertain bureaucracy, a limited viewing season and animals mostly terrified of people.

That said, a start could be made, so that some of the urban population of Juba, currently full of UN and NGO staff with little to do at weekends, could walk or drive through landscapes alive with reedbuck and gazelle and the larger animals could breed up again. Protecting the water points, patrolling the tracks and securing a couple of tented camps would reduce poaching and is not too ambitious a start. For the few who can afford it, tour operators could also hire planes to fly over the migrations, at present the easiest way to see them. There are one or two foreign investors interested in these possibilities, but no investments as yet. As I left the ranger post at Gerikedi musing over the history of the pool, I asked the head ranger if he had had any other visitors. “No”, he said, looking at me, “you are the only one who ever comes here.”

By Philip Winter

Photo: The Badingilu pool in dry season (Philip Winter)

Printed by permission of SWARA, the magazine of the East African Wildlife Society.