South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis: wildlife is also in the firing line

South Sudan’s elephant population plummeted from 80,000 in the late 1960s to less than 5,000 now. Shutterstock

The latest fighting in Juba, South Sudan, between government forces known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the opposition has left hundreds dead. It also displaced tens of thousands from their homes, leaving them without any means of subsistence.

The latest flare-up between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition leader Riek Machar follows a civil war that lasted two years. The civil war cost the lives of an estimated 50,000 people and resulted in the displacement of 2.3 million.

The humanitarian crisis is, and should always be, of paramount importance. But South Sudan’s wildlife and conservation programmes are also in severe crisis as a result of the fighting. The conflict has made weapons widely available and created opportunities for poaching. The lack of food in rural areas and displacement further exacerbates this, with well-armed poachers threatening the lives of rangers and wildlife.

South Sudan has a rich and varied fauna, with elephants, lions, leopards, cheetah, wild dogs and a great variety of antelopes. This includes the rare tiang and huge herds of white-eared kob, numbering more than 800,000. But conservation suffered hugely during the wars of liberation from Sudan – from 1956 to 1972, and 1984 to 2005. Elephants were killed for their ivory by the Sudanese army, its irregular militias, which became known as the Janjaweed, and the liberation movement, notably the SPLA.

Ivory was poached and exported via military networks through Khartoum and by the SPLA through Ethiopia or Uganda. The underfunded and poorly armed park wardens and rangers could not compete with the firepower of the army, militias and rebels, or with the substantial poaching by displaced or destitute civilians. South Sudan’s elephant population plummeted from 80,000 in the late 1960s to about 10,000 in 2000 and less than 5,000 now.

South Sudan has seven national parks and 16 other reserves or protected areas that have a variety of wetland, Sudd swamp, savannah and forest habitats. National parks and reserves account for 15% of the national land area. Despite a policy of wildlife and habitat protection proclaimed by the South Sudan government after the formation of the new state in 2011, following its secession from Sudan, the frequent communal conflicts and then the two years of civil war have prevented realistic conservation management. It has led to the deaths of several rangers at the hands of the SPLA or rebel groups.

Poaching is on the increase

Earlier this year, before the recent outbreak of fighting in Juba, it was reported that ivory poaching was continuing to increase in South Sudan.

Seventeen elephants were killed in a single incident in Warrap State in February. This followed the killing of 15 in Boma National Park the previous month.

More recently, a report by the independent Radio Tamazuj said that there was evidence of increased poaching activity at Lantoto National Park. The carcasses of 10 elephants were discovered and there was a substantial increase in the poaching of giraffes and zebras for meat and skins.

There has been a substantial increase in the poaching of zebras for meat and skins. Shutterstock

The chief game warden at the park, Colonel Natalino Lasuba, said that despite the arrest of several poachers, poaching there was on the rise. There is also evidence that many of the antelope herds and elephants are migrating out of the park and across the border into Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An animal exodus like this is usually the result of human encroachment or hunting, unless there has been a drought or loss of habitat.

But the animals are not migrating into safety. Garamba has serious, long-term poaching problems. SPLA soldiers, the Sudanese Janjaweed, Congolese rebels and professional poachers from Chad and Sudan all kill elephants for ivory and game for meat and hides. Over the past year, eight rangers and three Congolese army personnel were killed by heavily armed poachers in Garamba.

The growth in poaching is the result of a combination of factors:

  • the wide availability of automatic weapons from the 1984 to 2005 liberation war against Sudan and the recent civil war;

  • the scarcity of resources to provide for law enforcement and park rangers;

  • the destruction of conservation infrastructure;

  • severe hunger and a lack of viable means to earn a living;

  • the need to feed armies and militias; and

  • the use of ivory to help fund conflict or enrich political and military elites.

It’s not looking promising

Had it not been for the conflict, Garamba Park, along with Boma National Park in eastern South Sudan, could have been the focus of conservation efforts. Conserving habitats and species would, in turn, have developed a wildlife tourism industry that could bring in hard currency. Unfortunately, the civil war between Kiir and Machar’s forces has waylaid those plans.

Illegal gold mining in some national parks or reserves has also brought about human-wildlife conflict and significant growth in the bushmeat trade.

Paul Elkan, Director of the World Conservation Society programme in South Sudan, is also concerned about the aftermath of the conflict.

Ceasefires, when militias and rival forces are demobilised or inactive, could become the riskiest time for wildlife. With weapons but no fighting to carry out, poaching is a good option to make some quick money.

Animals in major decline

Before the start of the 1984 war for liberation from Sudan, South Sudan had a population of about 80,000 elephants. In 2011, the Wildlife Conservation Society and South Sudanese government estimated the country’s elephant population to be about 5,000 strong. Today, half of that elephant population has disappeared, either through poaching or migration in search of safe havens.

The remaining elephants, and much of the other valuable wildlife species like the tiang, kob, giraffes and zebra, have their best chance of survival in the national parks and reserves. But, as with Lantoto, most of the protected areas have been plagued by conflict-related poaching.

The Boma National Park in Jonglei State, for example, is one of the most important savannah ecosystems in the region. But fighting in mid-2013 between government forces and the Murle rebel group led by David Yau Yau led to the destruction of park infrastructure, the killing of three wildlife rangers and the disruption of conservation and wildlife protection programmes. Park officials, including Park Warden Kolo Pino, were killed by South Sudanese armed forces seeking to drive out Yau Yau’s fighters. Elephants in the park that had been fitted with radio collars for a conservation programme were also killed by poachers.

Ending the war and addressing a worsening humanitarian crisis is clearly a priority for South Sudan. But solutions seem as far away as ever.

In terms of environmental protection, the aligning of conflict resolution, economic reconstruction and conservation policies are vital. It is crucial to protect wildlife and the wilderness, but to do it in a way that benefits people. Encouraging them to value wildlife and see it as a sustainable asset rather than a short-term answer to a pressing need will be critical to the country’s conservation future.