Editor's note: Steven Sanderson is president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
(CNN) -- This Sunday, more than 3 million people in Southern Sudan are expected to vote in a referendum to create a nation in Eastern Africa.
As they do, there is a historic opportunity, perhaps unprecedented, for wildlife conservation, sustainable natural resource management and environmentally friendly ecotourism to be integrated into the nation-building process.
Land-use issues loom large in the election. Vast oil deposits in Southern Sudan account for roughly 98% of the region's revenues and will come under the south's management if it becomes a separate country. The White Nile flows through Southern Sudan toward Khartoum, adding water to the region's resource issues.
The hidden jewel in this unique landscape is its stunning wildlife. Before civil war broke out in 1983, Southern Sudan boasted some of the most spectacular and important wildlife populations in Africa and the world's second-largest wildlife migration -- of some 1.3 million antelope.
Large populations of buffalo, antelope, elephants and chimpanzees were neglected and presumed lost during the two-decade war.
At the request of the provisional government of Southern Sudan, the Wildlife Conservation Society surveyed the country for wildlife in 2007, thanks to funding from USAID and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The magnificent antelope migration and vast tracts of savannas, wetlands and woodlands remained largely intact.
The government's task now is to establish conservation and sustainable natural resource management as part of the region's development strategy.
The case for conservation is clear: The protection of parkland and wildlife must be a rallying point for Southern Sudan. Animal migrations, along with pristine savanna and wetland habitat, could become one of the greatest tourism attractions in Africa and a key component of Southern Sudan's growth and economic security.
Local communities live off the land and depend upon its management for their livelihoods. Integrating conservation in land-use planning offers hope to those most in need.
A sound conservation and resource management agenda will secure centuries-old wildlife migrations, along with great savannas and wetlands, for all humankind. Just as important, it will enable the people and government of Southern Sudan to move toward a free and stable democratic nation.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steven Sanderson