South Sudan’s oil industry, plagued by violence, corruption allegations, and environmental ruin, faces another crisis: the smuggling of illegal wildlife products.
On May 24, South Sudan’s wildlife service arrested an army officerallegedly attempting to transport chopped up tusks from eight elephants from Juba to the Paloich oil fields near the Sudanese border. The next day, police dogs at Juba’s airport sniffed out 10kg of frozen pangolin meat apparently belonging to a Chinese oil engineer who had just landed in Juba from Paloich. The army officer awaits prosecution, but the oil worker was released after a brief detention.
The two incidents are proof that the oil fields, which produce almost all South Sudanese government revenue, are becoming part of a wildlife trafficking network, according to Paul Elkan, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s South Sudan program.
“Paloich is designated as a hotspot,” Elkan said. “I don’t know that the two cases are connected [to each other], but the fact is, they are both connected with Paloich, so Paloich is obviously a problem.”
The incident also marks the first time a Chinese national has been caught smuggling wildlife contraband in South Sudan, according to wildlife service official Khamis Adieng. Members of South Sudan’s military have been implicated in trafficking before, but the apparent smuggling by a Chinese oil worker may prove Chinese involvement, something long suspected with the large presence of Chinese nationals in South Sudan’s petroleum industry, diplomatic community, and United Nations peacekeeping mission.
The ivory seized last week was likely going to Sudan, a commonly used transit point for tusks going to China, Adieng told reporters. South Sudan is trying to contain a sharp uptick in poaching and trafficking in the aftermath of a two and a half year civil war. In late March, poachers killed 17 elephants in a single incident for their tusks. Ivory is used in Chinese medicine and as a decorative status symbol in China. Pangolin meat and scales are eaten and worn in China and South Sudan.
It appears the pangolin meat was smuggled using an oil company flight. The pangolin meat was found in luggage from a flight operated by CemAir, which leases two aircraft to an oil company in South Sudan, according to documents shown to the media by Adieng. China National Petroleum Corporation holds the biggest stake in the oil companies operating in Paloich, the country’s only functional oil fields.