Sudan Calling



Tue, 03 Apr 2018 - 11:47 GMT


Tue, 03 Apr 2018 - 11:47 GMT

BBC Courtesy Ol Projeta Conservancy Sudan - The Last Male Northen White Rhinoceros

BBC Courtesy Ol Projeta Conservancy Sudan - The Last Male Northen White Rhinoceros

Last month two good friends of mine headed south in their 4x4, via Aswan and Wadi Halfa, to Sudan’s capital Khartoum. Very kindly they asked me to join them and the instinctive answer was an immediate ‘Yes!’ Then the day job and paying the bills and the real world rudely intervened and I am not jeep-bound to Sudan. But I am travelling with them vicariously. And part of me is with them in the form of a very battered metal jerry can I was able to lend them. So much classier and safer than a plastic jerry can.

I have been to Khartoum and to next-door Omdurman. There is something quite visceral at being at the confluence of the Blue and White Nile, the former rising in the highlands of Ethiopia and the latter way south in the Nile Basin’s Lake Victoria. Otherwise Khartoum has little to offer save wildly tasteless roundabout statues and a suggestion of what could be the most exciting city in the world—the confluence not just of rivers but of the Arab and African cultures.

But there are areas of greenery and greenery excites. On the banks of the White Nile is the Forest of Sunt and extensive area of acacia woodland heavily grazed and under threat but home to such birds, certainly new to me at the time, as the White-headed Babbler and the African Grey Hornbill.

Then there is Tuti Island, accessible by local ferry, sitting in the Blue Nile and with a village all abustle and with extensive farmland. There I ticked off African Silverbill and Striated Coucal. But it is not just about African specialties. At dusk on the mudflats on the island’s eastern tip flocks of Sacred Ibis would glide in to roost, a species now extinct in modern Egypt but worshipped by the Ancients. And delightfully there were Egyptian Plovers. What a striking bird! All dove-grey and black and white and pale peach and known as the Crocodile Bird for its supposed habit of picking parasites and old food from the maws of the giant reptiles. Herodotus first recorded this in the fifth century BC but it remains somewhat anecdotal.

Ornithologists sometimes refer to the Egyptian Plover as the non-Egyptian non-Plover and with some reason. It is not a true plover but rather related to a small family known as the Pratincoles and Coursers. And not having been recorded here since the 1930s it is considered extinct in modern Egypt.

While I have not been able to get down and catch up with the birds of Northern Sudan, the birds of northern Sudan seem to be making a real effort to head north and catch up with me. Particularly after the formation of Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam a number of birds normally considered (sub-Saharan) African species are being recorded further north.

At Abu Simbel the Yellow-billed Stork is now a regular visitor, often in summer. Superficially similar to the migrant White Stork it is just over a meter in length with a bill that is indeed yellow, crimson facial skin and an all black tail. Note the all-black tail.

The African Skimmer has been recorded breeding on sandbanks close to Abu Simbel and the African Collared Dove is regular now too. It is very similar to the familiar Collared Dove but is slightly smaller, slightly paler and with slightly darker primaries. So many slightlies but the combination of features make it slightly distinctive.

BBC Courtesy Ol Projeta Conservancy Sudan - The Last Male Northen White Rhinoceros

Another dove recently claimed for Abu Simbel is Bruce’s Green Pigeon. One of a largely Asian genus Treron this is a beautiful pigeon, a world away from the feral pigeons of city centers worldwide. It is green above with mat purple shoulders and a sulfur belly though despite the colors it is difficult to find in the yellow green acacia canopy.

Perhaps the most spectacular colonist from the south over recent years has been the Black Bush Chat or Robin. It is all black, around 22 centimeters long and with a long, graduated tail tipped white. I sit on the Egyptian Rarities Committee and we have received and approved so many records of this species in recent years that it may no longer be considered a rarity. The ever-increasing hotel development along the southern Red Sea coast with the gardens that attend the hotels seems to have allowed the Black Bush Robin to spread north. I have seen it in Sudan, in the Forest of Sunt sunbathing. The bird—not me. But it is not just the birds that are creeping across the border into southern Egypt. There are butterflies too.

In his book The Butterflies of Egypt Torben B. Larsen notes that Egypt has a relatively sparse butterfly fauna of just 58 species. But of this 58, 28 have been recorded from the Gebel Elba range in the very southeastern corner of the country on the border with Sudan. Six of these have never been recorded anywhere else in Egypt namely the Elfin Skipper, Yellow Splendor, Desert Orange-tip, Crimson Tip, Golden Arab and Cream-banded Charaxes. The latter is particularly impressive with a wingspan of 10 centimeters and elegant double tails on the hind wings. Most excitingly Larsen when reviewing those 28 species from Elba Larsen writes, albeit in 1990, that ‘I would not be surprised if the tentative figure of 28 were to be doubled. How exciting is that! If Gebel Elba were indeed to yield 56 species that would be a species count almost as large as that of the entire country.

One of these Elba species is Junonia hierta or the Yellow Pansy which in recent years I have been seeing regularly in the gardens of the American University in Cairo. The wingspan of this species is up to six centimeters. The male is strikingly patterned in bold patches of deep chocolate brown and bright orange and with a blob of purple-blue at the base of the hindwing. The female is similar but the blue is more subdued. In Larsen’s day it was described as a rare visitor, resident in Gebel Elba and an uncommon migrant elsewhere. It is not a big butterfly but it is very distinctive and easily identifiable. I think Larsen may be wrong or at least outdated and that it may well be resident elsewhere in Egypt. I will be looking out for its caterpillars this spring in my gardens.

Mammals deserve a mention. The Zorilla is a relative of the weasel that creeps into Egypt from northern Sudan. It is a large black and white weasel that readers from the Americas may more easily liken to a skunk. Shaggy and bushy-tailed, black throughout with three bold stripes along the back and a bold white, but broken, band across the forehead it has only been recorded from Wadi Darawena in the Sudanese Government Administration Area.

The Zorilla might be very, very rare in Egypt. But it thrives elsewhere in its range across sub-Saharan Africa. Another species—or at least subspecies is not so lucky. And there is a Sudan connection. Sudan, the Northern White Rhino, was the very last male of his race and he passed away on 21st March 2018. He died at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya at the ripe old age of 45—a good 90 in human terms. The only other Northern White Rhinos left are his daughter and his grand-daughter. He may not be a full species —taxonomists can debate that—but what is undebatable is that the demise of the Northern White Rhino is completely and utterly and entirely due to human agency—to ruthless hunting for trophies, for the senseless slaughter for the supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties of its horn and for its misfortune of living in a region of civil war that is also a human tragedy—and of human making. That Sudan’s sperm is now frozen along with those of other Northern White Rhinos and hence may be used in IVF is of no solace. He’s gone. His species is gone. We must take better care of our planet.



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