by Staff Writers
Juba, South Sudan (AFP) Dec 04, 2012
Elephant, giraffe and zebra in the world's newest nation South Sudan could soon be extinct due to rampant poaching and trafficking, conservation experts warned Tuesday.
Ironically, animals in South Sudan's vast wildernesses had been largely protected by almost five decades of civil war, despite poaching by rebels.
The war stifled development and preserved the largest intact savannah in East Africa, according to the United States-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
But war also left the fledgling nation awash with guns, and in the years since a 2005 peace deal, increasingly organised armed groups are trafficking ivory and killing animals for food.
The elephant population, estimated at 130,000 in 1986, has crashed to 5,000 if South Sudan is "lucky", WCS director in South Sudan Paul Elkan told reporters.
"Within the next five years, they could completely be gone with the current rates of poaching," Elkan said, adding that even security forces are "involved in trafficking."
South Sudan's animal migration is one of the largest in Africa, potentially topping in size even the world famous Maasai Mara and Serengeti migrations between Tanzania and Kenya, WCS said.
But the wildlife faces major challenges.
"Other species such as the zebra may already be gone, the rhino is probably already gone, giraffes are on the way out, so commercial bush meat also needs to be brought under control", Elkan added.
But a lack of laws and weak institutions prevent poachers and traffickers who are caught from being brought to book.
"We have apprehended so many poachers, caught red handed ... but because of this legal vacuum it is very difficult to prosecute them", said Gabriel Changson Chang, the country's wildlife, conservation and tourism minister.
S.Africa enlists surveillance aircraft to combat poaching
The military aircraft to be initially deployed to the internationally-famed Kruger National Park, is equipped with highly sophisticated surveillance technology -- including thermal imaging -- to detect poachers looking for rhino horn.
The aircraft was donated to South African National Parks (SANParks) by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, whose chairman also runs a defence company.
"You have to fight fire with fire," said Ivor Ichikowitz, chairman of the foundation and also chair of Paramount Group, Africa's largest privately held defence and aerospace outfit.
Poaching has reached epidemic levels this year, with a record 598 rhinos killed so far, largely to meet booming demand for rhino horn in Asian.
In countries like Vietnam the fingernail-like substance is falsely believed to be an aphrodisiac or a cure for cancer and is literally worth its weight in gold.
Park rangers have struggled to keep pace.
Some 364 rhino have been slaughtered in the Kruger National Park this year, a vast reserve that is around two million hectares, four times the size of Yellow Stone park in Wyoming.
The park accounts for 40 percent of the world rhino population.
With their new tool, the authorities will be able to gather intelligence and pass it on in real time to rapid response ground patrols.
The blue-and-black camouflage painted craft can fly for up to seven hours and at slow speeds with a 270 degree visibility, to allow it to gather robust intelligence. It will be manned by a pilot and spotter.
SANparks chief David Mabunda said instead of "fishing in the dark" as his rangers previously did against a "well-oiled machinery", the new aerial policing craft will help with "early warning."
"We are in a state of war, low intensity war," he said. More than 80 percent of the world's last rhinos are in Africa.
The government is also mulling the introduction of drones and is to deploy in coming days.
"We have already tested the efficacy of unmanned aerial vehicles with the state-owned Denel Dynamics company and in this first week of December we will be deploying that capability... to complement what we have already," Mabubnda told AFP.
"Warfare has become sophisticated and advanced, therefore we needed to scale up," he said.
On an average day rangers chase after around 20 groups of poachers with the most culprits entering through the 400 kilometres long park's border with neighbouring Mozambique where rhino poaching is en vogue.
"It's fashionable in that country. People aspire to be poachers" making the villages there a fertile recruiting ground for runners, said Abe Sibiya, Kruger Park managing executive.
"The benefits are visible" in the poverty-stricken villages which can suddenly acquire truckloads of cash and cars.
At the same time the South African authorities are also working to weaken demand from the east Asia.
Next week South Africa's environment minister is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding in Hanoi, aimed at improving cooperation with Vietnam against rhino poaching.
"To effectively deal with the current scourge of poaching, and with illegal hunting largely driven by international demand for the rhino horn, these international engagements and agreements are crucial," the ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
A Thai national was this year jailed for 40 years for running bogus rhino hunts as cover to sell horns on the black market, in the stiffest ever sentence handed down by the South African courts.
Darwin Today At TerraDaily.com
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