By Francis Okech
(Bloomberg) -- South Sudanese soldiers have killed wild animals for food and financial gain during the country’s 14-month civil war, ignoring requests to halt the practice, the head of the national wildlife service said.
Government troops, rebel forces and civilians have targeted animals such as Mongalla gazelle, white-eared Kob and tiang, also known as topi, antelope, Major-General Philip Chol Majak, director-general of South Sudan’s wildlife service, said in a Feb. 2 interview in the capital, Juba.
“If there is no peace and there is no implementation of the law in South Sudan and people are not respecting it as a source of revenue, after a period of time we will lose wildlife,” Majak said.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and almost 2 million others have fled their homes since South Sudan’s conflict erupted in December 2013, according to the United Nations. The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society in November said actions by government and rebel forces had made a “tragic, horrific impact” on antelopes, while the country’s elephants are at risk with fighting threatening “to push them ever closer towards national extinction.” The society cited commercial poaching and a “massive expansion” in bush-meat trafficking.
South Sudan has one of the largest untouched savannah and woodland ecosystems in Africa and its annual migration of about 1.2 million white-eared Kob, Mongalla gazelle and tiang rivals the wildebeest migration in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, according to the UN.
The number of elephants in the country was estimated at 80,000 in the 1970s when it was part of a united Sudan, WCS says. The group, which tracks the movement of some pachyderms with satellite collars, estimated in November that 30 percent of those monitored may have been killed by poachers since the civil war began. The giraffe population may have been 500 or less before December 2013, while tiang antelope numbered about 185,000 and white-eared Kob “a million-plus,” WCS said.
Majak said letters he’d sent to the Defense Ministry requesting action didn’t get responses, while staff protesting attacks on animals have been ignored or threatened. Army spokesman Philip Aguer said action could be taken if there were complaints about specific instances of poaching.
In peacetime, wildlife could attract tourism that would be an economic boon for a country that relies on oil for most of its revenue, according to Majak. The targeting of animals by combatants may imperil that, he said.
“Law enforcers are to protect people and resources, but our forces” don’t do so, Majak said. “With lack of facilities and the war, we are not able to protect wildlife.”
Paul Elkan, South Sudan program director for WCS, said tiang antelope and giraffes are at most risk.
“In some parks they are not much under pressure, but particularly in the areas where there is fighting the animals are under pressure,” he said in an interview Tuesday in Juba.
The society is in discussions with military officials, deputy director Michael Lopidia said in the same interview.
“We have been dealing with the commanders, but the issue is not the army as a whole, but individuals who sneak and poach the animals,” Lopidia said. “With this war, more guns have gone to civilian hands and they are also killing as much as possible.”
South Sudan’s wildlife service is “doing a lot” to tackle the crisis, including carrying out patrols in national parks, according to Lopidia. “With the current situation, some areas are difficult to access, but they are doing their best,” he said.
The country has six national parks and 13 game reserves, covering about 10 percent of its territory, according to the UN. Majak said one park is “functioning,” while “only killing of animals are taking place” at the other five.
“A reconnaissance survey we did on elephants, giraffes and tiang showed that their populations in some areas are doing OK and some not OK,” Elkan said. An aerial survey is planned for March or April to more fully measure the war’s impact on wildlife, he said.
Army spokesman Aguer said the wildlife service should report poaching to “the concerned authorities.” If the accused are members of the army then the group can inform the military’s administration “to see how we can save the wildlife,” he said by phone from Juba.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which fought an insurgency for more than two decades against Sudan’s government in Khartoum before South Sudanese independence in 2011, had rules to protect animals, according to Aguer.
“If people were in dire need for food then we had to inform the authorities to tell you what kind of animals and how many you can kill for food,” he said. Now South Sudan is independent “our soldiers are being paid, they have salaries and there is no excuse for any member of the army to be poaching,” Aguer said.