Conflict and Environment Observatory

The ready availability of small arms and light weapons accelerates biodiversity loss and makes wildlife conservation more dangerous.

A typical collection of ammunition from South Sudan, this one found on the ground in the vicinity of Maban, Upper Nile State. Credit: Adrian Garside.

In this blog, Adrian Garside examines the complex issue of arms proliferation in South Sudan, and the threat it poses to biodiversity protection during and after armed conflict.


The availability of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) is a factor in the decline of wildlife numbers due to their use in poaching and hunting.1 This in turn, impacts the methodology employed for protecting biodiversity, especially in designated wildlife Protected Areas (PAs). There are also links between the trafficking of arms and the Illegal Wildlife Trade.2 Therefore, to call for the control of SALW – as has been the case in a recent IUCN motion – forms part of the equation leading to the protection of wildlife.

This blog examines the matter of arms proliferation in South Sudan and the effect this is having on wildlife populations but more significantly, how it affects the practice of wildlife conservation. After decades of systematic repression and three civil wars, South Sudan remains hugely underdeveloped, including its wildlife sector. As a result, this blog cannot resort to numerical data such as wildlife decline in relation to arms availability, because that baseline data does not exist.

Other evidence of the impact of arms proliferation is however clearer. The culture that comes with weapons, the breakdown in the Rule of Law, and the ease with which situations can rapidly escalate where one generally assumes that every rural household is armed. It is known that the decline of South Sudan’s wildlife is primarily due to poaching, hunting and the consumption of bushmeat – often out of necessity. To turn this around, wildlife management and the control of SALW requires political stability, effective Rule of Law, good governance and as a result, human security.

A long history of arms flowing through the region

A very quick study of just one corner of South Sudan – Western Equatoria, which borders the DRC and CAR, illustrates the problem of arms proliferation on biodiversity. The Azande who live there, have long had a reputation for being some of the most prolific consumers of bushmeat in the country. Bushmeat has been an essential and traditional form of protein in their agrarian diet, and the dense border forest is habitat to a great variety of wildlife.

The proliferation of contemporary small arms began around 1955 with the start of the First Sudanese Civil War. The Second Civil War was increasingly fought along proxy lines, which encouraged an unregulated flow of arms to all sides in the southern provinces. At the end of the civil wars the combatants were either absorbed into the army, or police, prisons, wildlife and fire services, or melted back into their communities with their arms.

The flow of weapons is not a result of internal security issues only: the Congolese revolution following the assassination of Lumumba and the overthrow of Idi Amin in Uganda were two of the more significant events bringing arms and combatants through Equatoria.3 During the period 2006-10, the communities in Western Equatoria on the border with the DRC and CAR, were threatened by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In the absence of state or UN protection, a community defence group called the Arrow Boys was formed, and officially recognised as the armed body responsible for defending the rural communities.4

In the recent civil war, weapon movements have been documented in official reports, with arms continuing to flow in contravention of a UN arms embargo. Conflict and instability in the neighbouring DRC and CAR have enabled limited arms movements to continue across this peripheral area. Armed herders and an old ivory hunting route pass along a transhumant corridor in this forested border, beyond the reach of the governments of these three troubled nations. Further east amongst the Nilotic pastoralists, arms have militarised and increased the violence associated with the vast groups of cattle herders. Some of the most violent armed conflicts in the country occur over cattle raiding and competition over access to pasture and water.

There are no silver bullets to disarmament

It is well-known that disarmament in societies where SALW are prolific is extremely complex and political. The call to control SALW is right, but how to do it is inevitably difficult. Highly contextualised, even within a single country such as South Sudan, there are localised precedents that are different across the country.5 However, a common thread runs through disarmament operations: ownership of a weapon needs to be replaced with fair security guarantees. Without this, the weapon collection turns into an enforced disarmament, and that quickly escalates into violence.

This is illustrated by the government of South Sudan’s civilian disarmament campaigns. In 2006 the SPLA carried out enforced civilian disarmament in northern Jonglei State that was ethnically biased and resulted in 3,000 weapons collected and 1,600 deaths (i.e. a person killed for every two weapons collected). Meanwhile a national disarmament campaign in 2008 was poorly planned, decentralised and lacked a clear legal framework. Without the necessary security guarantees, it had little buy-in from local communities and the numbers of weapons collected was considered to be only a fraction of those in existence.6

Due to the Arrow Boys’ defensive operations against the LRA, it was decided that the conditions were not right for Western Equatoria to be included in the 2008 national disarmament campaign. The dense forest belt in the periphery of the three troubled nations that gave concealment for the LRA is also the transition zone connecting the biomes of East and Central Africa across the Nile/Congo watershed. Important conservation work in two old Game Reserves is being undertaken with those communities and the South Sudan Wildlife Service, in spite of the armed resurgence in this area during the recent civil war.7 The matter of states’ and UN Missions’ incapacity to ‘reach’ into these peripheries – i.e. the deep, rural areas where biodiversity is richest – requires much consideration when examining issues of governance, the Rule of Law, human security, and wildlife conservation.

The difficulties experienced in these earlier disarmament campaigns were reinforced in August 2020, when an effort to conduct a civilian disarmament exercise in Tonj County resulted in the death of some 148 people.

A Wildlife Service armoury contains weapons, some captured, that demonstrate a somewhat different role to that traditionally performed in wildlife management. Credit: Adrian Garside/African Wildlife Foundation.

The effect of arms proliferation in hunting

Research highlights the role that SALW have played in reducing wildlife numbers.8 The range of an AK47 enables the poacher to fell wildlife from a far greater distance than traditional hunting methods; and the rate of fire can ‘spray a herd with bullets’ in a matter of seconds.9 This has eradicated traditional rules understood by hunters who had to get much closer to their prey because of less accurate traditional weapons, that had a shorter range, and a much lower rate of fire. This meant there was closer observation of the quarry before the kill, which enabled hunters to adhere to rules such as not killing pregnant females, juveniles, or the dominant male, and respected breeding seasons. This went some way towards the ‘sustainable hunting’ that was necessary to ensure bushmeat supplies would last.10

During the recent civil war, in contested areas of Western Equatoria, the ‘sound of the gun’ from hunting could alert the SPLA or the local rebel group, and bring unwanted military attention. Although the use of snares and traps increased, overall the evidence indicates that hunting decreased during the more intense periods of the war.11 However, as the security situation has stabilised, so poaching is once more on the increase.

But in uncontested areas, where one side dominated an area, poaching could become an industrial undertaking. During 2017-18, the White Eared Cob migration in the Boma-Badingilu landscape on the eastern side of the country was being turned into bushmeat on a huge scale and trucked to Juba by the SPLA, the army of the government. The Wildlife Service, another armed element of the government, acted very boldly to intercept it.12 This is not a matter of arms proliferation, but of the state’s use of force that isn’t always for legitimate purposes. This complicates issues where the Wildlife Service, an underdog to the army, should be enforcing national wildlife laws. The problem of being the underdog goes further: the Wildlife Service generally has less armed capability than many community defence groups and cattle keepers.

As is often the case, these poachers had more ammunition than the Wildlife Rangers. Credit: Adrian Garside/Fauna & Flora International

The prevalence of small arms affects the whole of wildlife management, not just poaching

The scale of poaching/hunting and wildlife decline in South Sudan is not just the result of arms proliferation: the availability of SALW brings many other factors that affect wildlife conservation. Unregulated arms are usually associated with fragile and conflict-affected countries, weak government institutions, a breakdown in the Rule of Law, poor access to justice, and underdevelopment.

In rural areas, the availability of arms has caused a decline in the respect for traditional authority. Power is exerted through the threat of force rather than communal consultation, undermining the authority of chiefs. This is a significant factor for community-based conservation initiatives. The current era of devolved, incentive-led conservation is married to cooperation and collaboration with traditional and local authorities.13 Where these authorities have been undermined through the power of weapon ownership, the situation becomes much more complicated and requires careful assessment of what constitutes success for both human development and biodiversity.14

The same applies to the management of other resources in rural areas such as forestry, plantations, farms and the management of access to livestock waterpoints; where the ability to bring arms has become a fundamental part of their control and security. The best illustration of this breakdown is amongst cattle keepers, where ritual and cultural traditions to resolve disputes have been undermined with the availability of arms and the specific desecration of those traditional rules. This was done in order to mobilise militarised herders for political ends during the Second Civil War,15 and its effects continue today.

The prevalence of arms is one of the drivers behind a highly militarised society, and a hierarchy of security organisations that pervades every sector of government and society in South Sudan. Land Management (of which wildlife PA management is a part), and the control of whatever natural resources are within that land, can rapidly become securitised. This in turn risks escalating the practice of conservation towards militarisation.

It was an incident involving a group of well-armed poachers in 1979 that resulted in the Wildlife Department transforming into an armed Wildlife Service.16 A wildlife ranger with a side arm, military uniform and rank, can rapidly switch to soldier and back again. In 1991 President Bashir ordered all Wildlife Department officers in the south to disband, accusing them of joining the rebel movement (SPLA).17 Under the new laws for South Sudan, the President retains the right to re-allocate Wildlife Rangers to security duties. For many rangers, this role is more familiar to them than wildlife conservation.

As committed to in the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) signed in 2018, government and opposition forces have gathered at cantonment sites to establish control of their weapons and conduct training. A wariness of the process led many to leave their weapons behind. As has happened after the previous civil wars, combatants are once again to be absorbed into the army, or police, prisons, wildlife and fire services. Without salaries and food, they are already melting back into their communities with their arms.

Strength in numbers: no training, little ammunition, and in a volatile pastoralist area, rangers prefer to patrol in large numbers for their own safety. Credit: Adrian Garside/African Wildlife Foundation.

Conservation reflects the society it takes place in

South Sudan possesses some of the last, near pristine wilderness on the continent and once had some of the most outstanding fauna. But wildlife conservation is not a sector that operates in a vacuum: the service responsible for managing South Sudan’s wildlife estate reflects the society from which it is recruited and the degree to which its institutions, policies, behaviours, thoughts and values have been devoted to military power and shaped by war.18

In this militarised society, the Wildlife Service has in the past been perceived more as each state governors’ army and therefore, made unfit for its wildlife management role. Its greatest strength is that it is locally recruited, indigenous to each state, even down to county and town levels. Only through building cooperation at this level has it been possible to continue managing the wildlife PAs in Western Equatoria, fully cognisant of the availability of arms all around.

This example from South Sudan demonstrates that the problem of SALW proliferation on wildlife conservation should be addressed within the broader context of societal fragility, rather than as a stand-alone matter concerning wildlife poaching. Its broader impact on the practice of PA management, has the potential for lasting damage on these societies and their willingness to support biodiversity initiatives. For the few conservationists working in these rural areas, the point is not that every household is armed as this is a matter of their human security. Rather, it is about establishing relationships to ensure those arms are not used.

During the past 10 years Adrian Garside has worked in South Sudan on community security and small arms control across the country, as well as wildlife conservation in the Equatorias.

  1. The terms ‘hunting’ and ‘poaching’ are usually used to determine legality, i.e. hunting is legal and poaching is not. However, these two words have also been used to differentiate between rural, subsistence hunting for bushmeat (which may be illegal); and poaching for economic gain such as for the bushmeat trade, or for wildlife trophies such as ivory and pangolin scales. In the case of South Sudan where the Rule of Law is fragile, the latter use of the terms is more appropriate and forms the basis for how hunting and poaching is referred to in this blog.
  2. Eds Cathy Haenlein, MLR Smith, Poaching, Wildlife Trafficking and Security in Africa: Myths and Realities. RUSI Whitehall Paper 86, 2016.
  3. Larjour Consultancy, Report of the Research on the Proliferation and Trafficking in Small Arms and Light Weapons in Yambio, Maridi, Kajo Keji and Yei River Counties, Equatoria, South Sudan. Nov-Dec 2002.
  4. Jok Madut Jok, et al, Informal Armies: Community Defence Groups in South Sudan’s Civil War. SaferWorld, Feb 2017.
  5. Adam O’Brien, Shots in the Dark: the 2008 South Sudan Civilian Disarmament Campaign, The Small Arms Survey, 2009.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Fauna & Flora International’s South Sudan Programme. See Press Release:  Also, camera trap images on the citizen science site of Zooniverse:
  8. F. Braga-Pereira et al, From Spears to Automatic Rifles: the shift in hunting techniques as a mammal depletion driver during the Angolan Civil War. Biological Conservation 249 (2020) 108744.
  9. A (translated) description given during interviews, Western Equatoria, 2012.
  10. Author interviews across South Sudan, 2010 – present.
  11. An assessment of a Game Reserve that had been in close proximity to significant armed conflict for nearly 2 years, revealed much less presence of (illegal) human activity than was normal during periods of stability.
  12. Multiple sources.
  13. Eds Helen Suich and Brian Child with Anna Spenceley, Evolution and Innovation in Wildlife Conservation: Parks and Game Ranches to Transfrontier Conservation Areas, Earthscan IUCN, 2009.
  14. Author’s experience in Western Equatoria, 2011-present.
  15. Hannah Wild et al, The Militarisation of Cattle Raiding in South Sudan: how a traditional practice became a tool for political violence. Journal of International Humanitarian Action, 2018 3:2.
  16. Author interview with Lt Gen Fraser Tong, former Director of the Wildlife Department, Juba 2018.
  17. Ibid.
  18. A definition of militarisation attributed to Richard H. Kohn.

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