At the beginning of August, the minutes of a meeting of intelligence chiefs from African states were released, revealing the extent to which poaching and the smuggling of ivory and rhino horn were being used to fund insurgent groups in South Sudan, Al Shabaab in Somalia and the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
A separate report – published in the 19 August volume of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – estimated that poachers have killed 100,000 elephants in Africa in the last three years. The rate of killing has been in excess of 7% – even higher in Central Africa – while the average annual population increase is only 5%. This suggests a process of attrition that could lead to the extinction of the elephant, including in South Sudan.
Ivory funds insurgency and militias
The African intelligence meeting minutes, reported by South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, said that poaching was a serious political/security problem as well as an environmental one and that there was “a great deal of evidence of fledgling linkages between poaching and wildlife trafficking…and transnational organised criminal activities, including terrorism and weapons proliferation”. They said that they had information that groups from South Sudan were benefiting from the poaching and trafficking of wildlife. The security chiefs recommended that the matter be treated as a transnational security concern.
They were less forthcoming about the role of African armed forces – including the Sudanese government-backed Janjaweed militias and the Ugandan army – in poaching and the smuggling of ivory. Khartoum has traditionally been a route for ivory smuggling and the strong Chinese role in economic projects in Sudan increases its importance as a transit point for the illegal tusk trade.
Central Africa, where Sudanese poachers are active and help run the smuggling routes out of the continent, has a particularly high rate of killing of forest elephants. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol estimate that the region’s scattered elephant populations declined by 64% between 2002 and 2011.
The Sudan connection
Not all the poaching can be attributed to insurgent groups, but in areas of central and east Africa they are playing a major role. There is evidence of links between the Janjaweed in Darfur and the LRA; and also highly-mobile Chadian groups opposed to the Deby government. The Arabic-speaking communities from which the Janjaweed have been drawn have traditionally been involved in cross-border trade within the region and there is evidence of them carrying out poaching raids as far west as Cameroon as well as in Chad and CAR, and of being a key link in the chain that gets the ivory out of Africa to Vietnam, China and other destinations in Asia.
One piece of evidence that links the Sudanese militias to poaching across neighbouring states is the ammunition retrieved by Maisha Consulting, a group assisting a number of states with anti-poaching measures. They have found ammunition that matches series and types held by the Sudanese army’s arsenal in Khartoum – the Sudanese military being the main sources of arms and ammunition for the Janjaweed.
The event that drew most attention to the role and interconnections of insurgent groups in poaching was the killing two years ago of up to 450 elephants in Bouba N’Djida National Park, northern Cameroon. Local wildlife officials blamed horse-borne poachers from the Janjaweed and allied Chadian groups.
The Sudanese militia, notorious for its role in the Darfur conflict, has also carried out extensive raiding in Chad. Its other role, as a buyer and smuggler of ivory poached by other groups, is said by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to involve trading weapons and ammunition for ivory with groups like the LRA, which enables them to survive as a military force.
The plethora of armed groups in Darfur, especially the pro-government militias, are blamed as well for regular and destructive raids into CAR’s Dzanga Sangha reserve and Chad’s Zakouma national park, where an estimated 3,000 elephants have been killed in three years. Large groups of heavily armed poachers on horseback from Darfur are blamed by the Chadian authorities for the poaching.
The Chadian government has now committed heavily armed military units to protect the park, less from a commitment to protect wildlife than to prevent ivory being used to fund Chadian rebels groups.
CITES and UNEP studies suggest that the elephant is extinct in Sudan, with the only populations to be found in South Sudan.
South Sudan’s elephants in crisis
The conflict in South Sudan is having a serious effect on the elephant populations there. In July 2013, the South Sudanese government and the World Conservation Society (WCS) launched a programme to protect the country’s remaining herds. They had declined over the years of the second Sudanese civil war from in excess of 80,000 in the 1960s-70s to an estimated 5,000 in 2013. These last remaining elephants were under threat from poachers, many linked with South Sudanese armed groups, and the LRA. The WCS said at the launch of the programme that the future of the elephants was particularly endangered by the presence of rebel militias fighting the SPLA.
The Boma national park in Jonglei state has one of the most important savannah ecosystems in the region. Fighting in mid-2013 between government forces and the Murle rebel group led by David Yau Yau led to the destruction of park infrastructure, the killing of three wildlife rangers and the almost total disruption of conservation and wildlife protection programmes in the park and surrounding areas.
A report by Born Free USA and the US Centre for Defence Analysis suggested that the killing of park officials was carried out by the South Sudan armed forces (SPLA) sent to drive out Yau Yau’s fighters. The officials killed, including park warden Brigadier Kolo Pino, were all from the Murle community.
Earlier this year, in Lantoto National Park, in Central Equatoria state on the border with the DRC, at least six elephants were killed for their tusks. The park’s warden, Colonel Joseph Taban, reported that continuous poaching was being carried out by groups armed with machine guns. There was no clear evidence which groups – whether rebels or criminal gangs – were involved. Taban said the weapons being used were very different from the bows and arrows used by local people to poach for meat.
The park borders the Garamba National Park in DR Congo, where the LRA, the Ugandan army and the Janjaweed have all been suspected of engaging in poaching. Born Free USA has said that SPLA forces and former members of the army have also been heavily involved in poaching in Garamba.
The conflict between President Salva Kiir and forces loyal to Riek Machar, which began in December last year, has had devastating humanitarian consequences, with over 10,000 dead and nearly two million displaced. It is also having a serious environmental effect, and reducing the economic options, beyond oil, open to the country. The possibilities of wildlife tourism are declining rapidly.
An advisor to the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism, Lt-Gen Alfred Akuch Omoli, said recently that, “Since the start of this conflict we have noticed that poaching has become terrible. Rebels are poaching and the government forces are also poaching because they are all fighting in rural areas and the only available food they can get is wild meat”. Officials have also noted an increase in elephant poaching for their tusks, but avoided saying whether this was by rebel groups, local people or government forces.
The WCS’s deputy director for South Sudan said in June that a number of the elephants given radio collars under the protection programme launched in 2013 had been killed. The WCS warned in December 2012, a year before the start of the civil war that without a decline in poaching South Sudan’s elephants could disappear within five years. The security, humanitarian and economic effects of the civil war could hasten their demise.
Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, teaches journalism at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent and edits Africa News and Analysis (www.africajournalismtheworld.com)