Since January 2013, the newly independent nation of South Sudan has been locked in a civil war. Caught in the crossfire? Its wildlife.

The truth is that the violence in Sudan and the nascent South Sudan dates to well before South Sudan's secession – decades back – but in recent years the toll of the ongoing violence on animals has skyrocketed. Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) estimate that some 30 percent of South Sudan's elephants have been poached in this year alone.

In any major military struggle, wildlife tends to suffer, but this year has been particularly devastating because the most recent dry season was especially rough. The conditions were perfect for large-scale commercial wildlife poaching (to fund the war) as well as an expansion of bushmeat trafficking networks (in part, to feed the troops).

Sometimes pictures tell a story more powerfully than words can.

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An elephant herd in South Sudan. Image: Paul Elkan WCS
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Elephant group in South Sudan. Image: Paul Elkan WCS

In the 1970s, the area encompassed by modern South Sudan was home to some 80,000 elephants. Decades of war meant that by 2007, aerial surveys resulted in estimates of some 5,000 elephants left. Today, that estimate has plummeted to perhaps fewer than 2,500 individuals.

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Elephant carcass in South Sudan. Image: Paul Elkan WCS

As part of a joint initiative with USAID and local government wildlife officials, WCS has deployed sixty GPS collars on elephants across the country to allow them to better monitor their movements and to more effectively create protection plans.

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Elephant fitted with a GPS/satellite collar in South Sudan. Image: Paul Elkan WCS

Of collared elephants still alive in December 2013, researchers estimate that poachers have since killed 30 percent. In the last ten months alone, law enforcement efforts have led to eight seizures of elephant ivory – 65 tusks total – which further underscores the increasing rates of poaching and trafficking.

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Ivory tusks and trafficker arrested in South Sudan. Image: Joseph Taban MIWC
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Egyptian ivory trafficker Rajab Sharawi Rajab Mohamed arrested in Juba, South Sudan in December 2013. Image: Agurek Alekayou MIWC
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Worked ivory bracelets seized in Juba, South Sudan. Image: John Moi WCS

And it's not just the elephants. Also suffering are giraffe, waterbuck, hartebeest, kob and plenty of other less charismatic critters.

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Tiang, also known as Senegal hartebeest, migrate over the Jonglei plains, South Sudan. Image: Paul Elkan WCS

Populations of hartebeest are highly vulnerable in South Sudan. They have been particularly hard-hit as soldiers slaughter them for food.

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Giraffes in South Sudan. Image: Paul Elkan WCS

There may be fewer than 500 giraffe left in the country. They're also increasingly being hunted for meat – and in other parts of Africa, to add insult to injury, they're being slaughtered to feed elephant poachers.

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Bushmeat and traffickers arrested in South Sudan. Image: John Moi & Paul Awol WCS

“Since the start of this conflict, we have noticed that poaching has become terrible," said Lieutenant General Alfred Akwoch Omoli, an adviser to South Sudan's Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism. "Rebels are poaching and the government forces are also poaching because they are all fighting in rural areas and the only available food they can get is wild meat.”

Top header image: Gabriel White, Flickr