War-Torn South Sudan’s ‘Forgotten Forests’ Are Home to Rare Elephants

A camera-trap survey reveals endangered forest elephants living outside their known range, along with other wildlife surprises.
A forest elephant family. (Photo: FFI & Bucknell University)
Dec 9, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

For the first time, researchers have uncovered evidence of endangered forest elephants roaming South Sudan.

But that’s not all.

The conflict-ridden country’s mostly unexplored tropical forests are a treasure trove of wildlife, with giant pangolins, African golden cats, bongos (antelope), chimpanzees, and red river hogs all caught on film, thanks to recently placed remote-sensing camera traps.

From January through June, researchers with Flora and Fauna International, at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and South Sudan’s Wildlife Service surveyed more than 3,000 square miles of dense forest in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria state, which borders the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“It’s this belt that’s mostly been untouched and unresearched because of the decades of conflict in the area—it’s hard to get to,” said DeeAnn Reeder, a biology professor at Bucknell who has been studying mammals in South Sudan since 2004.

Reeder knew the tropical zone had the potential to be a biodiversity hot spot, but years of civil war and rampant elephant poaching left the team unsure of what to expect.

Then the images started coming in.

A forest elephant selfie. (Photo: FFI & Bucknell University)

Over the next six months, the team sifted through more than 20,000 photos of wildlife—1,190 of which included images of African forest elephants, a smaller, more elusive cousin of the savanna elephant that roams much of the continent’s plains.

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For the team, the images of forest elephants were like an early holiday present.

“We knew from working with locals in the area that there was the potential that forest elephants were in the region, but these images are the first to scientifically document the animals in the country,” Reeder said.

The forest elephant species, or subspecies—depending on whom you’re talking to—are experiencing the same devastating declines as their savanna brethren, mostly because of poaching for ivory, habitat loss, and the bushmeat trade. A recent study reported a 62-percent decline in the world’s forest elephant population between 2002 and 2011.

The camera-trap findings expand the known range of forest elephants farther east than previously recorded, a discovery that highlights the importance of extending wildlife conservation efforts in little-known regions and struggling communities like those in South Sudan.

Adrian Garside of Fauna and Flora International collaborated with Reeder on the survey, and the two have been working with communities in South Sudan since 2008, before the country’s independence from Sudan in 2011.

A forest elephant family. (Photo: FFI & Bucknell University)

Their most recent initiative is a joint project with local wildlife authorities focused on turning community members who once poached elephants into elephant rangers charged with monitoring camera traps, adjusting GPS units in the field, and becoming wildlife ambassadors.

A wildlife ranger and a community ambassador set camera traps. (Photo: FFI & Bucknell University)

“Experience has shown that wildlife and ecosystems often suffer enormously during and after conflict and in periods of political instability, and this depletion of natural resources affects some of the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society,” Garside said in a statement. “By maintaining our presence in the country, building good relationships with local communities, and supporting our partners, we will find ourselves in a far better position to help people manage their resources sustainably, both now and in the future.”

Reeder sees food insecurity as a fundamental problem.

“It’s a community that historically has hunted for its protein sources,” Reeder said. “Add economic collapse, decades of war, and more instability onto that, and you’ve got more and more pressure for people to turn to wildlife for food.”

In the images, the team was able to distinguish eight forest elephants from special markings—a welcome sign for Reeder.

“It’s really heartening to see it and see some of our efforts with the community pay off,” noted Reeder, who is planning to return to Western Equatoria early next year. “I get told on a weekly basis I’m crazy for going there and working there. No doubt—it’s an extremely challenging place—but I’m committed to the wildlife in that community and to the people.”

A golden cat walks on a human trail. (Photo: FFI & Bucknell University)

“I think it means something to the community that we’ve stayed through this trying time. I think it means something to the people on the ground there,” she added.

The camera-trap survey was funded by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Ape Conservation Fund, with additional funding from the Woodtiger Fund, Bucknell University, and Fauna and Flora International.

A bongo antelope. (Photo: FFI & Bucknell University)

The camera traps are still in place, and the team is expecting to retrieve more footage in February.

“We’re excited to see what else is out there,” Reeder said.