By Michael Gunn, Mading Ngor
South Sudan’s wildlife faces a critical few months as drier weather raises the risk of poaching of elephants and other species already threatened by almost a year of civil war, conservationists said.
The country’s December to March dry season is one of the riskiest times for animals such as elephants, giraffes and tiang, also known as topi, antelope, Paul Elkan, South Sudan program director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, said by phone from the capital, Juba, on Nov. 24. The migratory animals spend those months traveling toward water sources, increasing the chances they’ll come across populated areas and encounter armed groups and pastoralists, Elkan said.
The 2013-2014 dry season, which coincided with the beginning of South Sudan’s 11-month-old conflict, had a “tragic, horrific impact” on the antelope population and affected giraffes as government and rebel forces slaughtered them for food, Elkan said. It also had a “great impact” on elephants, which may have numbered less than 2,500 before the conflict. An unknown number of the pachyderms have since been killed for their tusks, he said.
“South Sudan’s war-weary elephants are now at a precipice, and the ongoing fighting threatens to push them ever closer towards national extinction,” the society said in a statement. The country’s remaining elephants and other vulnerable species are in “grave danger” after “large-scale” commercial poaching and a “massive expansion” of bush-meat trafficking this year, it said.
‘Widescale Loss’ Conflict erupted in the world’s newest nation in December when a power struggle within the ruling party turned violent, pitting forces loyal to President Salva Kiir against rebels allied with Riek Machar, Kiir’s former deputy. Thousands of people have died in the fighting and almost 2 million have been driven from their homes, according to the United Nations.
The violence continued as insurgent forces and government troops have repeatedly blamed each other for violating cease-fire agreements since the start of the year. Peace talks haven’t resumed since the warring parties were given 15 days to finalize a power-sharing deal on Nov. 7.
While “indicators suggest there is wide-scale loss of wildlife,” the war has placed much of the northeast, home to a sizable proportion of South Sudan’s vulnerable species, off-limits for assessment, Elkan said. WCS and the government’s wildlife department plan to undertake aerial surveys in March in a bid to measure the war’s impact, he said.
WCS, which tracks the movement of some elephants with satellite collars, estimates that 30 percent of those monitored were probably killed by poachers since the war began.
“We haven’t seen these kind of losses, ever,” Elkan said. At least 65 tusks and two bags of ivory jewelery have been found in eight seizures by authorities in South Sudan over the past year, according to Elkan.
South Sudan has one of the largest untouched savannah and woodland ecosystems in Africa and its annual migration of 1.2 million antelope 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 and hosted the world’s second-largest migration of wildlife, according to WCS. Just before last year’s civil war began, the giraffe population may have been 500 or less, while tiang antelope numbered about 150,000, Elkan said.
South Sudan army spokesman Philip Aguer said government troops don’t target wildlife.
“It has never happened and it will never happen,” he said by phone from Juba. “There are animals we are told never to kill. For instance, we have never killed an elephant.”
Rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang declined to comment on the issue when called by Bloomberg.