New Doubts About Whether Elephants Can Survive South Sudan's Civil War

Before war broke out in December 2013, things were getting better for South Sudan's elephants, conservationist says.

Southern Sudan knows violence. After being wracked by modern Africa's longest civil war, from 1983 to 2005, in which millions of people were displaced or died, South Sudan gained independence in 2011.

The region's elephants, originally estimated after the war to number about 5,000, suffered extreme losses too—but amazingly some survived. As migratory animals, they fled into hideouts deep in the bush, where they holed up out of the line of fire. (See "The Lost Herds of Southern Sudan," National Geographic, November 2010.)

In December 2013, when South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, of planning a coup, fighting erupted, and many lives were lost.

From South Sudan's capital, Juba, Paul Elkan—director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's South Sudan program—explains that in this new, and ongoing, conflict the country's remaining elephants are in serious jeopardy, along with other animals such as giraffes, tiang antelope, and buffalo.

What's happening in South Sudan seems to be one of the most desperate stories about elephants trying to survive in Africa.

Yeah. One of the most important things to understand about this is that the wildlife in this area has already gone through a 22-year civil war. And many populations were hammered during that war.

How many elephants are in South Sudan, do you estimate?

Before the long civil war, South Sudan had an estimated 80,000 elephants. After the war, in 2007, we did an aerial survey, and our estimate indicated that 5,000 elephants were alive. But after further research, we've revised our estimate and believe there are no more than 2,500 elephants in South Sudan.

How has the new war affected their plight?

These elephants are veterans of war, and if the right conditions are in place, they can recover. Prior to the outbreak of the current war, in December 2013, the outlook for elephants was fairly positive. Things were getting better.

There was still ivory trafficking and threats. But there was ecotourism associated with antelope migrations, and even though many species were reduced, they were still at densities enough to recover.

So what's excruciatingly difficult now is that as soon as the war broke out, we saw big increases in commercial bush-meat hunting to feed the soldiers. Also, due to the disruption of conflict, we haven't been able to carry out the normal duties of wildlife protection. So there's a current vacuum.

In the southern part of South Sudan, things are relatively stable. But there's still occasional heavy fighting in the north. The northern third is where a lot of the fighting is taking place, and it's very inaccessible to wildlife professionals.

It so happens that the northern part of this area is also very important for elephants.

You describe South Sudan's elephants as "war weary." Are there any other elephants in Africa as exhausted by conflict?

Eastern DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] elephants. Historically, Mozambique elephants were subjected to decades of war. Elephants in Somalia. I think all the remaining elephants of Central African Republic.

But for South Sudan elephants, it's different. Think of yourself as a local: You survive 22 years of war. You found a way to make it through. And then you have a peace agreement. And then you have independence. Then you have some peace. And then you are in war again.

These same experiences apply to the elephant.

Have you come to understand how elephants survive in combat zones or during periods of war?

One thing that's important to know is that we have active GPS collars on elephants in the north and the south, including many groups in the combat zone. So we're tracking many of these elephants. [WCS has put radio collars on some 60 elephants in South Sudan.]

We started collaring in 2010. Over the years we've monitored elephant groups all over South Sudan. If we know where they are, we can keep an eye on them. I call it "shepherding of elephants"—you're looking over your flock.

We're keeping them out of harm's way, and collaring is the best way to do that. We can combine what we know with where to send ground patrols and do rapid reaction, along with regular monitoring. It's a research tool, and it's also a shepherding tool.

Unfortunately, we've lost 30 percent of collared animals, and we think they were all poached—although we can't get into the combat area to verify this. We don't know exactly how many are being killed. But that's an indicator, and that's why we're so concerned. We want to get direct access to the area. We're negotiating, and as soon as we can get access, we're going to investigate.

[But] what tends to happen is that the elephants try to find places where they're not being shot at, and they also band together in larger groups and herds for protection. These various elephant herds have found areas where they can be safe during the war, and they stay in those areas.

Do the fighters engage in the poaching?

Sometimes fighters are more preoccupied with combat. But the problem is that the war has gone on for a long time now. They originally poached for bush meat. But this war has been [going for] a year, and the forces are controlling different areas and are locked into those areas. And people are taking advantage of this.

Because WCS and wildlife forces can't continue as normal, the poaching could be taking place from armed forces. Or local people who are taking advantage of a power vacuum. It's difficult to discern in these combat zones exactly who is responsible.

Right now, elephants and other species are without help, without guardians, without people looking after them.

When South Sudan's political climate is peaceful, who monitors the wildlife?

We have 50 staff, and we work with 600 rangers on a day-to-day basis.

Have the rangers now joined the war?

The wildlife forces have not been directly mobilized into this war. It can happen, but they haven't been. In some places, wildlife forces have defected. When the government split in this war, the police and army also split. Some stayed with the government, and some went with rebels. So yes, in some areas the rangers joined the fighting.

Take us back to the end of Sudan's civil war, in 2005, when the story emerged that elephants had survived.

It was the best news Sudan had since the signing of the peace agreement in 2005. The best news, really, in 25 years. It was a positive news story. We had mixed results of course—so many of the elephants had perished. But the fact there were any elephants remaining after 22 years was good news.

Then you also had this spectacular migration that was still intact—the migration here is the second biggest in the world, after the Serengeti. Of course some species were greatly reduced, but they were still existing in small numbers. It was a message of hope.

In those two decades before 2005, how did so many elephants die?

To clarify: The decline of elephants wasn't just due to the war. It happened in the seventies and eighties that horsemen from the north—the same folks who did the Bouba Ndjida massacre, the ones who destroyed elephants in Chad and CAR and Cameroon—those folks also wiped out the elephants of the western region of Sudan in the seventies and eighties and even in the nineties.

So it wasn't just the war; the decline of the 80,000 wasn't just by the fighters.

When this story of hope emerged, did it galvanize South Sudanese to want to protect their elephants?

Yes. Pride for wildlife in general but particularly the migrations and the fact there were elephants—it did. We made the cover of the New York Times. There was lots of pride associated with an area mostly known for suffering. Wow.

Are you tapping into that pride now? How is WCS trying to prevent the remaining animals from being slaughtered in this current conflict?

We're making appeals to the leaders of the conflicting factions to secure peace for the people and the wildlife. The different armies can take internal measures to prevent soldiers from killing elephants. The SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] had rules against killing certain species and had written regulations during the war against Khartoum. We're appealing to SPLA and SPLA in Opposition to adopt strict regulations for wildlife protection and to ensure that their forces do not engage in poaching and wildlife trafficking.

Unfortunately, some of the commanders currently are taking advantage and doing commercial hunting and trafficking bush meat. I'm sure the leaders of the government are not supporting that.

We've had community partners sharing information with us about poaching issues, and going on patrol to stop some of the poaching. And here's a good story: Local communities we're working with are patrolling these wildlife areas together with wildlife personnel and WCS staff, and some of these people are standing up to the military. Just average citizens we're working with ... very impressive.

Do you have anyone behind the lines giving you any information?

In and around the combat zones? No. We're working on it. I do have some intel and some reports, but we need to confirm and investigate. In the combat zones, it's hard to get.

We've had a few commanders calling in to tell us that the opposition is poaching, however. And some spokesman for the rebel groups is accusing government forces of killing antelope. Then there are counteraccusations saying, no, that's not true.

Is South Sudan part of the Great Elephant Census?

We were supposed to do the South Sudan component of the survey in February-March 2014, but because of war we couldn't. We'd like to do it in 2015.

You can't do it now for concerns that the survey plane would be shot down?

Yes. They shot a UN helicopter a month ago. Rebels have made warnings. Even if we tell a lot of forces ahead of time what we want to do, there are a lot of people in war mode. I'm certain we can survey some areas in the dry season. But the north is the key area.

We have every intention to try and negotiate access. Once it's safe, we'll do it.

Follow Christina Russo on Twitter.

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