By Diing Magot and Denis Morris Mimbugbe
South Sudan is losing its wildlife population due to illegal poaching, exacerbated by several factors which have serious consequences for both wildlife and humanity.
Since the signing of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) in 2018, a peace agreement now in place, there has been an improvement in the arresting and prosecuting of perpetrators of wildlife crimes. But more needs to be done, said Brigadier General Mathieu J. Machonyjok, the spokesman for the Ministry of Wildlife.
Machonyjok believes poaching and trafficking are still rampant in the country despite the government’s efforts to stop it. He says wildlife crimes are committed in all national parks in the country.
These parks include Badingilo, located in the central equatorial state; Boma, located in the greater Pibor Administrative area; Nimule, in Eastern Equatoria State; and Western Equatoria State Park, in Western Bhar Ghazel.
“The targeted species are ungulates poached for meat,” he said. “Poached and trafficking items are confiscated as exhibits, and fines and imprisonment are applied on the traffickers, who are mostly after tusks, horns, skins, scales and bones.”
Citing Pibor, and Badingilo conservation areas in Central Equatoria, Machonyjok says that in June 2023, these areas experienced what he terms an “extraordinary massacre” of White-eared Kob and Tiang species by poachers who were after bushmeat.
“Also, the ministry lost one of its personnel to poachers,” stresses Machonyjok, further narrating that massive seizures and many arrests were made after this incident. The suspected poachers who allegedly carried out this act are being prosecuted.
“Juba is the main city that poachers bring their products to; however, products like tusks, horns, or skins illegally exit the country through Juba airport and through posts on our borders with Sudan or Kenya,” he said.
For seven months during the course of our #WildEye Eastern Africa investigation, we attempted to acquire data on arrests and court cases of wildlife crime in South Sudan from 2017 onward from the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism. This quest included many correspondences and meetings with officials of this authority. Access to information in South Sudan is governed by the 2013 Right of Access to Information Act, which gives broad rights to citizens for access to public records.
But after spending several days in the wildlife ministry offices, we were only able to acquire official information on nine recent arrests made by law enforcement and wildlife officials between January and April 2023. Two of the seizures occurred around Bandingilo National Park to the northwest of Juba, including a case where 200 animals were killed.
The ministry declared that the suspects in these cases were arrested and that the court cases were ongoing. However, the ministry does not keep information on court proceedings or outcomes, according to Lt. Gen. Aggrey Lasu Wani, Assistant Director General for Law Enforcement at the South Sudan National Wildlife Service.
After visiting the South Sudan High Court for several weeks, we were only able to get information on five recent cases regarding unspecified bushmeat: four from arrests that occurred during the first months of 2023, which have not yet been prosecuted, and one prosecuted case from 2021. Most occurred in Mangala and Bandingilo National Parks.
Most of our pre-2023 data is therefore based on publicly available news reports.
Before the war broke out, South Sudan's forests and savannah were home to about 2,500 elephants, hundreds of giraffes, the endemic Nile Lechwe and white-eared Kob, Tiang, Mongalla antelope, Wild Dog, Chimpanzee, and Bongo populations.
But this is no longer the case. These numbers have tremendously reduced due to poaching.
A 2018 UN Environment report estimates that the number of elephants in the country declined from about 80,000 in the 1970s to less than 2,500 in 2007. During the same period, buffalos declined from 96,000 to less than 10,000, while giraffes reduced from 13,000 to about 500.
The massive poaching and trafficking are coupled with illegal mining, timber harvesting, and charcoal production in the protected areas, which endanger the wild animals' lives, habitats, and their food.
Insecurity in the county, especially after the 2013 and 2016 wars, has led to a steady flow of firearms into the civilian communities at such a time when the country is facing economic hardships.
Subsequently, some civilians and security officials reportedly use these easily assessed guns to poach for bushmeat, which they sell for income generation.
According to information we collected for #WildEye Eastern Africa from news reports and the wildlife ministry, people arrested with bushmeat have included soldiers and a major from the South Sudan army, a commissioner of Lafon County (which includes Bandingilo National Park), and a national security officer. The army major was released without charges or explanation, according to a report by the Enough Project.
Clement Liba, a member of the State Legislative Assembly in Western Equatoria, Yambio, argues that the declaration of a state of emergency in the country during the war helped to skyrocket wildlife cases there.
"These are people who are outlawed, and then when they are in the bush, sometimes they spend two days, three days without food. The only way to survive is to hide and kill an animal, so this drastically reduced the number of animals. Even the rampant gunshots scare the wild animals,” he says.
Wildlife experts argue that antelopes and deers are the most poached wild animals in South Sudan, primarily for bushmeat. Close to this list are the elephants killed for ivory smuggled out of the country through Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Egypt and Sudan to markets as far as China and Malaysia.
Edward Yakani, the Executive Director of Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), says this illegal activity results in the loss of wild animals for tourism.
"We know poachers are doing large-scale poaching nationwide. We are losing a huge number of animals, and we are even losing the value of our tourism due to illegal poaching activities,” insists Yakani.
In 2016, 10 kilograms of frozen pangolin meat were discovered by sniffer dogs at Juba International Airport, reportedly belonging to a Chinese national working in the oil fields of Paloich as an engineer. The suspected smuggler was released shortly after his arrest, according to information we collected for #WildEye Eastern Africa from the Enough Project.
Clement Liba, a member of the State Legislative Assembly in Western Equatoria, Yambio, laments that last year in Mvolo County, community members killed one of the hippopotami in a river there.
"This was a big shame," he notes. Several arrests were made after this crime. He also cites a case of locals killing an elephant in this area.
"Some few years back, particularly in Ibba County, there was that instance where the poachers killed an elephant. I think the government had to campaign and arrest the poachers."
Lack of strict laws and prosecutions of wildlife crime
South Sudan’s neighbour in the south, Uganda, established a wildlife court to hear wildlife crimes in 2017. The court has been credited for clamping down on wildlife crime. This court has handed criminals several punishments, including a jail term of life in prison for an ivory trader.
Upon our visits to the South Sudan High Court, it appears there exists a special court for wildlife crimes with a judge assigned to these cases. However, wildlife cases were still mixed up with other cases in the manual ledgers - one of the reasons they could not be retrieved, according to a source in the police court who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job.
Yakani of CEPO laments that some law enforcement officers, who have access to guns, usually go unpunished when they engage in poaching.
Simon Kalesto, an environmental conservation consultant in Yambio and Torit, says that in Western Equatoria, bushmeat is sold openly, and there are no restrictions on trading and eating bushmeat.
"Whenever the hunters are arrested with the bundles of meat, returning from poaching, the only punishment they get is confiscation of their guns and the meat," narrates Kalesto.
Such punishments, he narrates, are not deterrent enough to stop the crimes from happening.
But Brigadier General Mathieu J. Machonyjok, the spokesman for the Ministry of Wildlife, believes the current law is strong enough to control wildlife crimes in the country.
"Our Ministry has put forward severe punishment for those who violate the rules for wildlife conservation. The law protects these species. We have the right to capture and seize all items used in poaching and illegal trade, such as the vehicles, bicycles, weapons, or anything used, " insists Machonyjok.
Ray of hope
Edward Yakani, the Executive Director of Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), believes that the presence of wildlife offices across the country in areas including parks and airports, coupled with the sensitization of communities against depending on bushmeat, will help to minimize poaching in the country.
Likewise, Kalesto, says the western Equatoria state's fauna and flora team is carrying out a census of all wild animals in the game reserves and parks around the state to ascertain their numbers. This is hoped to boost efforts to conserve the animals and fight against poaching.
Through the Ministry of Wildlife and Conservation, the government has also introduced regular inspection of goods at Juba International Airport and all entry points for wild animal products.
The presence of wildlife officers at checkpoints on major roads in the country to detect bushmeat or any other wildlife products is also a boost in the fight against poaching.
“We must stop poaching in South Sudan to conserve wild animals for national development,” advocates Clement Liba, a member of the State Legislative Assembly in Western Equatoria, Yambio.
However, lack of funds hinders scaling up activities of the wildlife ministry to fight wildlife crime.
“We planned for an operation to Major Roads entering Juba which we suspected are facilitating trading on meat and other Wildlife Tropes finding its way to other countries through Juba Airport. This can only be possible if funds are available to us,” wrote Lt. Gen. Aggrey Lasu Wani, assistant director general for law enforcement at the National Wildlife Service, in an official statement submitted to InfoNile.
This story was supported by InfoNile, in collaboration with the Oxpeckers #WildEye Eastern Africa project, with funding from Earth Journalism Network's Biodiversity Media Initiative project.