The ongoing armed conflict in South Sudan has caused an increase in illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking.
And, according to the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism (MWCT) and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), bushmeat is being used to feed the SPLA and SPLA-in-Opposition forces.
From January, they added, there has been an upsurge of poaching and trafficking in areas affected by the recent fighting between the forces of President Salva Kiir Mayardit and troops loyal to his former deputy, Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon. These areas include Gemeiza and Terekeka in Central Equatoria State, Pochalla and Boma in Jonglei State, and the capital Juba.
In late February, large quantities of bushmeat were confiscated from two traffickers attempting to smuggle it from Gemeiza to Juba. The bundles were hidden underneath a layer of smoked fish in an SPLA HQ pick-up truck.
These illicit activities are not only helping to provide sustenance for the two armies but it has also given a chance to the opportunistic elements among the combatants. South Sudan’s Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), a non-profit, civil society group, and WCF claim to have credible intelligence on an SPLA commander based in Gemezia who is organising the bushmeat trade for personal gain using SPLA resources.
The SPLA and its Ugandan allies, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), have in the past been implicated in wildlife poaching. In 2004, there were reports that poachers linked to the SPLA were hunting elephants for ivory and bushmeat in Garamba National Park in neighbouring northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In 2012, a UPDF helicopter was allegedly used in the massacre of 22 elephants for their ivory, also in Garamba.
Just last year, more than a dozen sack-loads of bushmeat, estimated to be the equivalent of 212 individual animals, were seized from an SPLA officer who was accused of poaching in Upper Nile State.
However, the recent conflict has changed the context of the poaching and trafficking. South Sudan is in the grip of a serious political crisis that has manifested itself in armed conflict in several areas, including the oil-rich ones.
And since both SPLA factions are using bushmeat to feed troops, this has only fuelled the fighting and frustrated negotiated efforts in Ethiopia to find a political settlement to the crisis.
South Sudan hosts the world’s second largest wildlife migration after the wildebeest migration between the Serengeti plains of Tanzania and the Tsavo in Kenya.
Conservationists estimate that 1.3 million white-eared kob, tiang or topi and Mongalla gazelles partake in this seasonal spectacle in the Jonglei-Boma region in the southeast of the country.
The topi, one of two main species in the legendary migration, migrate to the Sudd wetlands during the dry season. Their movement corridor is between Ayod and Bor, the Jonglei capital, where much of the fighting has been taking place. There is also movement of the vulnerable antelopes on the Juba-Bor road.
In the past couple of weeks, there have been a number of arrests by MWCT of commercial bushmeat traders and poachers who have been taking advantage of these wildlife movements (as well as the continuing conflict). These have included SPLA personnel.
“There have been accusations and counter-accusations being made by the SPLA and their breakaway faction of wildlife poaching in northern Jonglei State where there has been fighting and where there is movement of vulnerable tiang antelopes,” said Dr Paul Elkan, director of the South Sudan Program of the WCS.
The MWCT and the WCS have however had some success in their crackdown on wildlife crime while the South Sudan Wildlife Service (SSWS) from Central Equatoria focused on controlling the commercial trafficking from the Badingilo Park in late February.
Around the same time as the SPLA HQ vehicle bust, the MWCT arrested a trafficker with an estimated 120 pieces of bushmeat estimated to be from 30 antelopes (including topi, white-eared kob, Mongalla gazelle and reedbuck).
Also, an estimated 100 pieces of bushmeat, amounting to 25 individual animals, were seized from another trafficker from Terekeka locality.
Such has been the scale of poaching and trafficking by the combatants in recent months that it prompted Lt-Gen Alfred Almoch Omoli, adviser to the Ministries of Interior and Wildlife Conservation, to issue this plea to the belligerents: “We call upon the SPLA and other organised forces and all the citizens of the Republic of South Sudan to strictly respect the laws of the country, which prohibit poaching of wildlife and trafficking. This commercial poaching is destroying the potential for the future development of our country.”
The ongoing conflict has also hampered efforts by MWCT and WCS to properly monitor the well-being of isolated elephant populations. The country’s elephants are estimated to number fewer than 5,000, down from the 80,000 thought to inhabit the region in the 1960s-70s.
South Sudan is facing the reality of losing its endangered elephants to poaching and trafficking, this despite the WCS having 34 GPS satellite collars on the vulnerable animals that track and monitor most of the remaining populations.
“We’ve lost one collared elephant near the conflict zone,” said Dr Elkan. “It’s behind opposition forces lines, so we don’t know exactly what happened. We are able to monitor some elephant populations but not others.”
Over the past generation, African elephant populations have dropped by more than 75 per cent and in South Sudan the estimated decline for the past 30 years is about 90 per cent. Conservationists estimate that 35,000 elephants were killed across the African continent in 2012.
The Government of South Sudan (GOSS) has, however, shown a commitment to protecting its remaining stocks.
Last September, South Sudan and other African countries with surviving elephant populations, joined the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants.
This is a commitment to action of governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other organisations to halt the senseless slaughter of African elephants for their ivory.
South Sudan is also a signatory to last December’s African Elephant Summit in Botswana, where delegates from 30 countries and 27 inter-governmental agencies and NGOs discussed key, urgent measures required to stem the growing illegal ivory trade and its effect on elephant populations on the continent.
Less than a month prior to the recent conflict, the first South Sudan Wildlife Leadership Conference was held in Juba to discuss the sustainable management of the country’s vast wildlife populations.
Recommendations included strengthening efforts to combat the threats to wildlife from poaching and trafficking by developing inter-agency networks and collaboration with the organised forces, Customs and the judiciary as well as with neighbouring countries and internationally for wildlife law enforcement.
The GOSS has also initiated programmes to help offset wildlife poaching. One such project is the USAid/WCS-funded Livelihoods Small Grants Programme in partnership with Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO).
Conservationists are also worried about the long-term survival of South Sudan’s elephants due to the fact that the country has become a new transit route for ivory trafficking syndicates.
The growth in criminal ivory trafficking networks that are driving the elephant poaching crisis has prompted the Ministries of Interior and Wildlife Conservation and the Central Equatoria State Wildlife Service to initiate a robust campaign in the past weeks to combat ivory smuggling.
This has resulted in several ivory seizures and arrests.