JUBA, South Sudan — A hopeful myth persists in this region that “wildlife refugees”—fauna in flight from war-ravaged habitats—will return one day when the conflict is over. Would that it were so. But in South Sudan, no end of the conflict appears in sight, and amid vast human suffering, nature is being ravaged as well.
The great icons of the wild—the elephants, the rhinos, the leopards and lions (so beloved of trophy hunting dentists and the heedless offspring of the outrageously rich) are gone or going fast. Conservationists say the “charismatic megafauna” are nearly wiped out here. No northern white rhino has been spotted in the region since 1981; only 2,500 elephant remain in all of South Sudan.
But in a saga reminiscent of the novel and film The Roots of Heaven 60 years ago, environmentalists nevertheless go on fighting the good fight. “Anyone who’s seen the great herds on the march across the last free spaces of the earth knows they’re something the world can’t afford to lose!” says a defender of the elephants in the movie. “But no… We have to capture, kill, destroy. All that’s beautiful has got to go. All that’s free! Soon we’ll be alone on this earth with nothing to destroy but ourselves!”
Welcome to South Sudan.
I am in a Cessna 206 flying over Bandingilo National Park—which has been passing below us for almost two hours. The savannah is orange and green in the hues of camouflage cloth. Except for a few pairs of ostrich and a couple of giraffes standing in the shade of spindly acacias, we’ve seen precious little animate life.
“Gazelle, giraffe and zebra are getting hammered,” says Dr. Paul Elkan, who’s at the plane’s controls. They’re being killed for food. “The bushmeat trade is fueling the civil war,” he says.
“With a giraffe you get more bang for your bullet,” says Elkan, an American who serves as the South Sudan director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). A single giraffe provides up to 600 pounds of meat. Slow-moving and high profile, giraffe are especially vulnerable to poaching, and their dwindling numbers in the park reflect that. These days, Elkan adds, it’s almost as rare to see a zebra or a buffalo as it is to see a rhino.
Elkan and his colleague, WCS Deputy Director Michael Lopidia, are conducting an aerial-recon survey of wildlife, and even as they take a census of the dwindling animal population they keep watch for poachers and their camps.
Overwhelmed by the civil war, the South Sudanese government has outsourced the country’s conservation efforts much as it has outsourced exploitation of its mineral resources. WCS took over management of South Sudan’s six national parks after the 2005 peace agreement that led to the country’s independence from Khartoum in 2011 after decades of civil war, and the job was daunting, given that the country is as vast as Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda combined. Bandingilo alone is 3,900 square miles.
The WCS doesn’t employ rangers of its own, but takes rangers from the government’s forces and trains them in wildlife-crime law enforcement. Its staff has made inroads providing technical and operational support. The organization works with the United Nations to clear land mines in parks, build ranger posts, and run anti-poaching and intelligence operations in partnership with the government.
WCS, as a result, is none too popular. At present, the organization cannot access and survey the northern third of the country due to the civil war.
Bandingilo, just outside South Sudan’s capital, Juba, is the site of Earth’s second-largest wild migration, behind the Serengeti in Kenya and Tanzania. Its savannahs, marshlands, and wooded areas are still home to key species of antelope—including reedbuck, tiang and white-eared Kob antelope as well as giraffe. But the herds’ migratory corridors pass through combat zones.
We are heading toward a road cutting through the middle of the park. Elkan banks the plane and holds a tight circle over a stand of acacia, under which sit two white trucks. Hunting is banned in the country so it’s pretty easy to identify such a configuration as a poacher’s camp.
“They’re armed,” says Lopidia from the back seat. He holds up a pair of binoculars. “Bandingilo is a strategic base for the bad guys,” he adds, “not too far from Juba.”
The bad guys are from both sides of the country’s civil war. It’s unclear, so far, whether this crew are government soldiers or rebels.
“Looks like an SPLA camp,” Lopidia says, now snapping photos.
Internecine conflict has plagued the world’s youngest nation since 2013. Leaders of the two rival ethnic groups, Dinka and Nuer, have always agreed on the point that wildlife is a valuable resource. But human lives are, understandably, the priority.
So of course, is trying to win the war, which erupted when President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, of being behind a failed coup attempt. The Dinka turned on the Nuer, killing thousands in Juba alone. Tens of thousands more have been killed throughout the country, and well over a million internally displaced. Even the government’s minister of wildlife and tourism left his job—to join the rebels.
The Salva Kiir forces are those of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the SPLA—whom Elkan suspects we’ve spotted under the acacia trees. Although they have Juba’s backing, SPLA troops are not being paid, and their food rations consist of meat from poached animals. Sudan-watchers say the ruling elite are investing oil revenues— oil being the country’s only source of hard currency—in armored Hummers and in real estate outside the country, chiefly in Kenya. Little trickles down to the government’s troops.
As the war began to drag on, soldiers from both sides—the SPLA and the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO)—resorted to subsistence hunting. Bushmeat was sold in villages, with proceeds going to fund weapons purchases, and the troops’ snaring and shooting of animals evolved rapidly from a basic hunter-gatherer economy into a commercial enterprise. Gazelle, “the French fries of the plains” for traditional predators, once were plentiful. Today, the lion must compete with soldiers for gazelle.
A wildlife survey, a difficult undertaking anywhere, is especially hard to pull off in a war zone. One technique is, figuratively,“to dive-bomb an elephant carcass,” says Elkan, taking a quick close look then getting away fast. “With armed men, who are always suspicious, you take lots of photos with a powerful camera and look at them later, to determine the types of weapons.”
We circle back to Juba, and Elkan gets us into position to land. When air-traffic control puts the Cessna in a holding pattern, Elkan is clearly annoyed.
If the number and size of aircraft contracted by various operators reflect a nation’s priorities, then in South Sudan, the humanitarian-aid industry wins hands down. According to South Sudan NGO Forum, there are 160 national and 142 international NGOs that facilitate humanitarian and development needs in the country.
“UN aircraft are taking off and landing every ten minutes,” Elkan notes. “Juba is the busiest airport in East Africa and yet there’s only one radio frequency. This is an accident waiting to happen.”
Indeed, the tarmac below us is blanketed with aircraft: a Russian-made attack helicopter, commercial aircraft, but most of the equipment we see belongs to the UN. This field is home to the largest helicopter in the world. In most corners of Juba the relentless, strained whine of jet engines is audible all day.
At the spot where Elkan parks the Cessna, now that we’re cleared and on the ground, a member of his team retrieves a bullet from the asphalt.
I remark that Juba reminds me of the Wild West.
“Juba used to be crazy,” Elkan answers. “Now, it’s just fucked up.”
With its mix of Kenyan, American, and South African cowboys running private logistics companies, aging alcoholic missionaries, Ukrainian and Chinese UN peace keepers, RayBan- and cowboy-hat-sporting MPs, armed police at the capital’s bars, Juba is part Mad Max and part Graham Greene.
South Sudan’s conflicts are not restricted to military and paramilitary combatants. Environmentalists and developers are also clashing. Supply routes and roads were cut off between Khartoum and Juba after South Sudan won independence, making it difficult for villagers to get basic foods and supplies.
While roads are lifelines for humans, they can be death sentences for wildlife. And oil concessions granted by the South Sudan government—to the French oil giant Total, for example—may expose the park to surveying and drilling.
Bandingilo is a vast reserve, but there are long-established villages, as well as promising potential oil fields, that are within the region enclosed by its boundaries. Both require overland access by heavy vehicles.
Bandingilo falls within Jongelei state, bordering Ethiopia to the east. After President Kiir reached a peace deal with a local rebel group, a new administrative area was carved out of Jongelei. But the region remains isolated. During the rains large humanitarian aid aircraft cannot land on muddy airstrips. Helicopters are too expensive to use with any frequency. Health and education are lacking. So is clean water, and for that matter bore holes are few.
Recently, a 30-kilometer stretch of road was cleared. But the government halted construction because the road passes through a national park.
Villagers at Pibor, a outpost reminiscent of the British colonial era, complain they are running out of food, and blame the government resolution suspending construction of the road for their enforced fast. Peter Guzulu, spokesman for the administrative area, denounces this road closure as unconstitutional, and accuses the director-general of South Sudan’s Wildlife Service, Maj. Gen. Philip Chol Majak, a Dinka, of leading the charge to cut off this vital conduit for food and other goods. Guzulu told a local reporter that animals should not, at such a critical time for the country, be favored over human beings.
I visited Major Chol at his office in Juba. It was festooned with ribbons and trophies from matches he won as captain of weekend soccer teams. Noting the half-dozen heavily armed police outside his building, I asked whether he felt threatened. Chol told me he continues to condemn the SPLA for poaching, and stands by the government’s decision to stop construction of the road in order to protect wildlife.
Given that wildlife in parks in Angola and Mozambique were wiped out during civil wars during the 80s, when the South Sudanese fight for independence was under way conservationists didn’t hold out much hope its wildlife could survive. Pilots and aid workers returning from relief missions told grim stories that the wildlife was all but eliminated. But after the peace deal in 2005, when the WCS and the new government conducted the first aerial survey of the region in 25 years, astonishingly, they discovered vast migrating herds. The those began to be decimated.
How, now, to save what’s left? Elkan advocates a version of the private-game-ranch model deployed in Kenya. There “the government realized what a pain in the ass it is to manage wildlife in parks,” he says, pulling his baseball cap down tight on his head. “Especially during war.”
Private ranches, he explains, have taken a huge burden off the government in efforts to manage South Sudan’s remaining rhino in the forested western parts of the country. His vision is to lead management away from the government-anchored model and decentralize wildlife management.
On July 9, South Sudan marked its fourth year of independence, and rebel leader Machar reportedly vowed to carry on the fight until President Kiir is overthrown. Wildlife may be returning, due to the arrival of seasonal rains, but remain vulnerable.
Africa’s national parks are like states, and only as strong as their security apparatus.
I caught up with Elkan recently by phone. He told me he recently flew over herds of migrating tiang and Kop antelope following the long rains in May and June. He said a second radio frequency has been added for pilots navigating Juba International Airport. “I’m happy about this, because a C-130 Hercules military transport plane nearly crashed into my parked Cessna the other day.”
And in Boma National park, he told me, a WCS-trained deputy game warden and former SPLA commander arrested a group of SPLA soldiers in possession of 150 kilos of bushmeat—and burned it.
Finally the OCS war to save wild animals from war is paying off.
I asked Elkan and Lopedia if I could call them the Blackwater of wildlife. They cracked up. They didn’t say no. “But non-profit,” they said.