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‘Exploitation crisis’: Civil war fueling ‘sharp rise’ in poaching and trafficking of South Sudan’s wildlife

African Elephant. Photo by Rhett Butler.

  • Before the war broke out, South Sudan’s forests and savannah were home to about 2,500 elephants, several hundred giraffe, the endemic Nile Lechwe and white-eared kob, tiang, Mongalla antelope migration, wild dog, chimpanzee, and bongo populations, WCS’s scientists say.
  • But ever since the outbreak of the war, there has been an “alarming” expansion of illegal activities across the country.
  • Both local and international actors, especially the armed forces, have become involved in ivory poaching and trafficking, commercial bushmeat poaching and trafficking, illegal logging, gold mining, and charcoal production, WCS added.

The ongoing civil war in South Sudan is taking a severe toll on the country’s wildlife and other natural resources, conservationists warn.

There has been a “sharp” rise in illegal activities in South Sudan, experts from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) reported recently, resulting in a natural resource “exploitation crisis” in the country.

Before the war broke out in December 2013, South Sudan’s forests and savannah were home to numerous rare and threatened wildlife. Biologists have recorded about 2,500 elephants, several hundred giraffe, the endemic Nile Lechwe and white-eared kob, tiang, Mongalla antelope, wild dog, chimpanzee, and bongo populations in the country.

But ever since the outbreak of the war, there has been an “alarming” expansion of illegal activities across the country, WCS said. Both local and international actors, especially the armed forces, are plundering South Sudan’s natural resources. These individuals and groups have become involved in ivory poaching and trafficking, commercial bushmeat poaching and trafficking, illegal logging, gold mining, and charcoal production, WCS added.

“Due to the war disruption, there is a governance vacuum and also a lack of field monitoring and law enforcement in some areas,” WCS’s Paul Elkan told Mongabay. “Therefore, various actors, including armed forces try to make maximum profit in short term period plundering natural resources.”

Recently poached elephant in South Sudan 2015. Photo by P Elkan WCS.

For instance, on February 13, the Badingilo Park Wildlife Service arrested 19 soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and 11 civilians in connection with commercial bushmeat poaching and trafficking, according to the press release. The Park Wildlife Service also confiscated 15 Ak47 rifles and 15 motorcycles, along with 21 sacks of dried bushmeat (representing as many as 62 antelopes) destined for commercial sale.

“All large-bodied mammals have been impacted [by poaching and trafficking],” Elkan said. “The tiang populations have been hit especially hard.”

Several other cases of local and international groups involved in ivory trafficking, illegal charcoal production, illegal gold mining inside protected areas, and other illicit activities are currently under investigation, WCS said.

WCS and the South Sudan Wildlife Service are currently assessing the impact of the civil war on South Sudan’s natural resources. But monitoring and protecting natural resources in a war-torn country has several challenges, Elkan said.

“The direct armed conflict activities prevent access to certain warfare zones which are also home to wildlife so gaining access and patrolling these areas needs to be done as soon security permits,” Elkan explained. “Also, when arrests are currently made of armed forces involved in poaching there is often pressures from the higher level to release them soon after being apprehended.”

Illegal charcoal production in Badingilo National Park, South Sudan 2015. Photo by P Elkan, WCS.

The surge in poaching, trafficking and other illegal activities has conservationists concerned. However, initial surveys show that there may be some hope. WCS said that some of their observations confirm that wildlife has managed to survive in some pockets within the country.

“Our aerial surveys have covered some very remote areas of the country which have not been penetrated by poachers, therefore there is a sort of natural protection by the remoteness,” Elkan said. “However, areas near roads and in proximity of armed force camps and activities are major kill and traffic zones. South sudan is a large country so there are some pockets with little human activity where some wildlife does find refuge.  But those of course can be penetrated by targeted poaching efforts as well.”

To tackle the crisis, WCS has called on the SPLA Government, SPLA-In Opposition, Cobra Faction forces and all other armed groups in South Sudan to “respect South Sudan’s wildlife protection laws and cease all wildlife poaching and trafficking”. WCS has also called upon South Sudan’s citizens, as well as local and international groups to help support the protection of the country’s wildlife and natural resources.

Moreover, WCS has requested the Transitional Government of National Unity, State and local leaders, and all armed groups in the country to grant and facilitate “full and unrestricted access” to all areas of the country for monitoring, conservation, and natural resource management activities.

“The situation of uncontrolled illegal logging, mining, poaching, charcoal trade, and other natural resource exploitation in the country is getting worse,”Jaden Tongun Emilio, Chairman Natural Resource Management Group of South Sudan said in a statement. “We need to work together at local, State, and National levels as part of the peace process to ensure that the foundation for future development of the country is secured through sound and transparent natural resource law enforcement and integrated management.”