Researchers have discovered the existence of a critically endangered species of elephant, the forest elephant, in South Sudan. Camera traps placed in the country’s vast and largely unexplored Western Equatoria captured photos of the animal over the course six months, the first time the forest elephant has ever been documented in South Sudan.
“This is an extremely important finding… Finding them in South Sudan expands their known range—something that urgently needs further study because forest elephants, like their savannah cousins, are facing intense poaching pressure,” said DeeAnn Reeder, a biology professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, which worked with a conservation charity Fauna & Flora International and South Sudan’s Wildlife Service on the project.
Little is known about the African forest elephant, which has recently been classified as a distinct species from its counterpart that roams the savanna. It lives in dense jungle and forest, habitats that researchers have difficulty accessing. Scientists believe the animals play a crucial role in the ecosystem as heavy fruit eaters who spread seeds of tropical fruit trees far and wide through their waste.
Poaching and deforestation have decimated their numbers. Between 2002 and 2011, the number of forest elephants fell by 62%, and conservationists believe we may only have five years before they are completely extinct.
The researchers also found evidence of other animals never recorded in South Sudan, post-independence as well as before, such as the African golden cat, the red river hog, the water chevrotain also known as the fanged deer, and the giant pangolin.
As South Sudan’s civil war continues, protecting the newly found forest elephant and other animals will prove difficult. “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,” says Adrian Garside, one of the researchers with Fauna & Flora International.