DNA Testing of Ivory Helps Thwart Poachers in South Sudan

Ministry of Wildlife officials work with USAID partners to catalog and test confiscated elephant tusks.
South Sudan Ministry of Wildlife officials work with USAID partners to catalog and test confiscated elephant tusks.
Victor Lugala, USAID
Zeroing in on criminals by tracking elephants
“By knowing the locations from which the elephant ivory was taken, we can better target our anti-poaching and anti-trafficking activities and break the national and international trafficking chains.”

March 2016—South Sudan’s dwindling elephant population—there are only an estimated 2,500 remaining—is under threat from poachers who illegally sell their ivory tusks. Their precarious survival is threatened even more by conflict and lack of government resources.

Conflict and insecurity have resulted in a breakdown of some South Sudan public institutions, threatening wildlife populations and exacerbating illicit trade in bushmeat, rare species and ivory.

Since 2008, USAID has supported wildlife conservation in South Sudan through the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a New York-based organization founded in 1895. Working with South Sudan’s National Wildlife Service, WCS has mapped South Sudan’s wildlife population, trained 485 park rangers and educated communities on the importance of wildlife protection. The organization has also helped to resolve conflicts over land use while considering the interests of wildlife, pastoralists and farming communities.

Wildlife migration corridors, protected areas and national parks covered by USAID's Boma-Jonglei-Equatoria Landscape project contain more than 70 percent of South Sudan’s untapped natural resources, including oil, minerals, gold and coltan. But these areas are also located at the epicenter of deep-rooted tensions, triggering recurrent interethnic conflict.

“We have a lot of challenges because of trafficking and poachers and because of the situation in the Republic of South Sudan,” said Maj. Gen. Phillip Chol Majak, director general of the National Wildlife Service, part of South Sudan’s Ministry of Interior and Wildlife Conservation.

Following its independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan plunged into civil conflict in December 2013, displacing more than 2.4 million people.

“We hope if we get peace in South Sudan, we’ll have a solution to get rid of ivory trafficking and poaching,” added Majak.

Brig. Gen. David Deng Adol, chief warden of Nimule National Park, said that in just two months recently, two elephants were killed in and around the park. Between 2008 and 2014, 14 were killed. “It’s because of lack of protection,” he said.

WCS is helping the wildlife ministry test the DNA of elephant tusks confiscated from markets in South Sudan and from Juba International Airport during attempts to smuggle ivory out of the country. Working with the London-based organization Stop Ivory and the University of Washington in Seattle, WCS and the ministry are testing the DNA to determine whether the ivory is from South Sudanese or other African elephants.

“By knowing the locations from which the elephant ivory was taken, we can better target our anti-poaching and anti-trafficking activities together with the ministry to secure vulnerable populations and break the national and international trafficking chains,” said WCS Deputy Director Michael Lopidia.

With USAID funding, the Wildlife Conservation Society placed GPS tracking collars on groups of South Sudan elephants to track their movement and took hair samples that can now be used to test DNA in ivory to determine its origin. According to Adol, testing indicated that ivory confiscated in Kampala last year was from South Sudanese elephants.

WCS has also helped the ministry obtain DNA analysis of giraffe skins, in collaboration with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. That analysis showed that South Sudan has at least two subspecies of giraffe—the Kordofan giraffe, which is found west of the Nile, and Rothschild’s giraffe, one of the tallest and most endangered giraffe subspecies.

U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan Molly Phee noted that this initiative is important so South Sudan can protect natural resources. “Because of insecurity, that has been difficult,” she said. “The most important thing is to get to peace and security to protect for South Sudan and all of humanity these valuable natural resources.”

South Sudan is a member of several initiatives and organizations that combat wildlife and ivory trafficking, including the 2014 Arusha Declaration on Regional Conservation and Combating Wildlife/Environmental Crime, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Elephant Protection Initiative and INTERPOL.

The Boma-Jonglei-Equatoria Landscape project, which runs from 2008 to 2016, has trained more than 21,000 people in South Sudan on the importance of wildlife protection. It has also helped resolve 10 land conflicts in Pochalla, Badingilo and Boma. 

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Last updated: September 18, 2017

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