South Sudan Today
With the resumption of civil war, South Sudan's fledgling economy has stuttered to a halt, development has foundered and, by almost all measures, South Sudan remains one of the world's most unfortunate nations. There are almost no surfaced roads, and outside the main towns virtually no hospitals or medical centres, few schools and little industry. Almost all South Sudanese survive by subsistence agriculture. According to the World Bank, 65.9% of the population live in extreme poverty.
South Sudan is the most oil-dependent country on earth, with oil accounting for almost all its exports and around 60% of its GDP, and yet with the current fighting oil exports are down (and even at normal rates of use, oil reserves are expected to have almost dried up by 2035). This decline in oil revenue has led to a financial crisis and an inflation rate of 730% (up to August 2016). This, combined with the civil war and a catastrophic drought in 2016, has meant that the cost of basic food items has spiralled upwards to the point where a majority of households can no longer afford even the most basic of foodstuffs.
By February 2017 the situation had become so bad that UN agencies declared South Sudan was in a state of famine, with 100,000 people on the verge of starvation, nearly five million people (more than 40% of the population) in urgent need of help and a million of those people on the brink of famine. Aid agencies say that the famine is almost entirely caused by humans and that a million children under five years of age are already acutely malnourished and that 1.5 million people have fled the country.
Whatever way you look at it, the future for the world's newest nation is looking precariously grim.
South Sudan boasts numerous ethnic groups, with around 60 different languages spoken. The main ethnic groups are the Dinka, who make up around 15% of the population, the Nuer (around 10%), the Bari and the Azande. Indigenous traditional beliefs are widespread and even though Christianity has made inroads, it's still very much a minority religion that's often overlaid with traditional beliefs and customs.
Despite the potential oil wealth the vast majority of South Sudanese live a life of subsistence farming and cattle herding. For many tribes cattle are of huge cultural importance. They are the source of wealth and the key to marriage. A young boy is traditionally given an ox to care for by his father and he is even given a 'bull name', which often relates to the colour of his ox. Many tribes have a large vocabulary for cattle and their different colours. Cattle rustling is very common and clashes between tribal groups occur frequently.
South Sudan is made up of vast areas of savannah (including the biggest savannah ecosystem in Africa), swamps (the Sudd, a swamp the size of England, is the largest such habitat in Africa), and flood plains interspersed with areas of woodland.
The wildlife of South Sudan has fared the years of the independence wars remarkably well. For the moment nobody really knows how the current rounds of fighting are impacting the great herds of large mammals that wade through the swamps and stride across the grasslands of South Sudan. Before these current outbreaks of violence environmental threats were coming in other forms: oil companies were looking for oil in a number of wildlife-rich areas, and illegal hunting, farming and construction work was taking place in and around protected zones. A big potential threat is water-diversion projects, which could have a dramatic impact on the annual flooding of the White Nile.
The Greatest (Wildlife) Show on Earth
So you've heard all about the wildebeest migration in Kenya and Tanzania and how it's been described as the greatest wildlife show on earth. Well, have you heard about South Sudan's own wildlife migration involving possibly even larger numbers of animals? When the Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org) conducted aerial surveys of what is now South Sudan in 2007, the last thing they expected to see was migrating herds of over a million white-eared kob, tiang antelope and Mongalla gazelle, but that's exactly what they found. In addition there are thought to be over 8000 elephants, 8900 buffaloes and 2800 ostriches, as well as lions, leopards, giraffes, hippos and numerous other species.
Looking at how big-buck-spending tourists flock to the national parks of neighbouring Kenya, the new government of South Sudan wasn't slow to recognise the tourist goldmine these animals might represent, and started trying to promote wildlife-watching tourism. The focus of these efforts was Boma National Park. This huge park, abutting the Ethiopian border, is crawling in megafauna.
Sadly, Boma is in a particularly volatile part of the country and it hasn't been safe to visit for the last few years. There is not yet any information on how the wildlife is faring during the current round of violence.