Who Profits from Illicit Trade of Elephant Tusks in South Sudan?

In 1970s and 1980s, South Sudan was home to more than 100,000 elephants according to Lt. Gen. Khamis Adiang Ding, Director General in the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism.

Today South Sudan’s government says the number of elephants in the country has fallen to less than 2,500 in the last 15 years.

“Some animal species have gotten extinct like rhinos, elephant numbers have reduced, ostriches and giraffes because they are vulnerable for meat and products such as ivory and tusks which are for commercial purposes,” said Ding in a recent interview in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

James Madeng Makoi, a member of the Wildlife Crime Unit said the major reason for the decline in the number of elephants is due to poaching.

He said that poaching has become common in national parks and game reserves across South Sudan.

“We got an elephant lying dead without its ivory after two days. Usually, we patrol the Nimule national park five times a week. This time, when we were patrolling, we checked for the route of which the poachers came from and where they went to, we got that they came from Gordon hill and went back to Nimule town,” said Makoi.

The Nimule national park is near the border between Uganda and South Sudan.

Manned by few poorly paid security officers, the borders are porous, and poachers can easily cross with ivory into Uganda.

“We think the government has not put a lot into Nimule national park despite its huge potential. We need forces to face these poachers; we can all do this to save our animals for the future, said Egidio Oler Brown, Director, Nimule national park.                      

 The civil war which raged in South Sudan between 2013 and 2018 led to the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, some of which are now used to kill elephants for their tusks.

It also triggered an economic crisis, pushing wildlife protection even further down the list of government priorities. 

In Nimule national park, two of the three posts for government troops that used to protect the animals have been abandoned due to lack of funds to keep the game rangers at work.

 “People do not have other ways of getting money. Wildlife products have market, the demand is there making many to resort in it that if there were other ways, then people will not follow an elephant just to get an ivory,” said Brown.

Africa’s longest river, the Nile, runs through the Nimule national park. Elephants cross the river at will, but so do poachers.

Ugandan authorities say they are aware of organized criminal networks involved in illegal wildlife trafficking from Uganda to Vietnam.

“We have strengthened our security at the exit points, we are able to screen and to know where we can but they have become so sophisticated in terms of how they conceal the contraband,” said Margaret Kasumba, Manager Law Enforcement and Security, Uganda Wildlife Authority.

In 2019, the Uganda Wildlife Authority arrested several Vietnamese nationals with ivory concealed in trucks that transport goods for export. They continue to look for others.

The Authority says the Viet Group is a criminal organization involved in the illegal ivory trade.

The Viet Group founded in northern Vietnam in the late 2000s, allegedly started its operations in Africa with a view to sourcing wildlife itself and increasing its control of the illicit wildlife supply chain.

To beat trans-boundary transit laws in East Africa, the criminals do not tag or brand the smuggled ivory from South Sudan. Instead, they sneak it out as old tires meant for re-tread, old car batteries or hide them among logs or timbers.

Ivory is sometimes painted black and labeled as cow horns or concealed as plastics for recycling.

Ivory from South Sudan is mostly transported to Uganda, where members of the Viet Group then gain access to it.

Vietnamese authorities say these members cooperate with local suppliers in Mozambique and Uganda.

The Environmental Investigation Agency or EIA — an NGO based in the US and UK, says most, if not all, international criminal syndicates in transnational wildlife trade in Africa are either Vietnamese or Chinese.

“Since 2018, Vietnam has become the largest importer of illicit ivory, surpassing China; this is partly due to the issue of domestic ivory ban in China in 2018,” said Linh Nguyen, Investigator, Environmental Investigation Agency, Africa and Asia.

EIA says authorities need to do more to tackle wildlife crimes than just seizing contraband.

“Just going to the media and saying, great job, look at what we have seized is unacceptable, there got to be follow-up investigation in the country where the goods are supposed to be sold and where the goods came from,” said Justin Gosling, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Consultant, EIA

South Sudan has six national parks and more than 10 game reserves covering more than 13 percent of the country’s terrain – and many of the wildlife species living there are under threat.

The protection of elephants here is at a crossroads, as authorities say they are concerned that the extinction of the species in South Sudan is not far away from reality.

Wek Atak