Bongos and bushmeat in South Sudan’s crisis

Deep in the bush on South Sudan’s western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a tropical forest marking the source of the tributaries to the White Nile and the River Congo, effectively the East-West Africa transition zone.  In this belt is a wealth of wildlife, its protection based largely on its remoteness, on the periphery of these troubled nations.

Camera-trapping over the past few years has uncovered the uniqueness of this area, a wild habitat of considerable scientific importance: wildlife includes the forest Elephant, the very eastern extent of the western Bongo, Chimpanzee, Golden Cat, forest Buffalo and many more, including a new genus of bat so striking that it was nick-named the Panda Bat.

The camera-trapping has been done with the South Sudan Wildlife Service and Community Wildlife Ambassadors: this is a joint venture between the government and community in a country where ‘government’ controls the urban centres and ‘rebels’ control ‘the bush’. Having begun this work before the current war, the local authorities joke that ‘going to the bush’ is normally a reference to joining the opposition.

I have just returned from a stint in ‘the bush’ training a new group of Wildlife Service Rangers and Community Wildlife Ambassadors (community-based wildlife rangers), setting camera- traps in new areas a few hundred metres from the unmarked, international border with the DRC. We are slowly increasing our knowledge about the boundary of the old reserve gazetted over 75 years ago, from various local anecdotes and even the memories of early demarcation attempts amongst a few elders.

The threat to the wildlife is high. Contrary to a commonly-held view, during war poaching usually decreases due to insecurity and the risk of drawing unwanted attention from ‘the sound of the gun’.  However, in the current war and the proliferation of AK47’s from two previous civil wars, poaching is reported at its highest levels: this is not sophisticated trophy hunting, it is for bush-meat as the economy has crashed and bush-meat is a means of economic survival for some.  It is also an army’s or militia’s rations: in a country officially declared to be suffering a famine, bush-meat does pose an ethical question beyond the normal conservation one.

Famine and a crashed economy are both symptoms of the current civil war.  Humans are a central part of the conservation landscape, but during war their position in that landscape is much more politicised. The game reserves provide an opportunity for the future: with all that’s happening in South Sudan, it is important to remember that the insurgent, the politician and the poacher all have to be part of the solution in the end.  Adrian Garside; he has spent the past five years working in wildlife conservation and community development South Sudan’s ongoing civil war. A former British army officer, with over twenty five years experience of policy and execution addressing conflicts in the Middle East, Balkans and Africa, Adrian was the United Kingdom’s first Stabilisation Adviser in Sudan as well as adviser to the African Union mission in Darfur.

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