Despite years of civil conflict in South Sudan, the nation’s wildlife seems to be persevering. A new camera trap survey has revealed that the country’s remote tropical forests are home to an array of elusive species, including African golden cats and rarely seen forest elephants.

Forest Elephant Family South Sudan 2015 12 11
Forest elephants in South Sudan. Image © Flora and Fauna International and Bucknell University

The camera traps were set up as part of an ongoing survey in a vast stretch of unexplored terrain believed to be of ecological importance. Over 20,000 images were captured over a six-month period – including the first snapshots of forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) ever captured in the battle-scarred nation!

“This is an extremely important finding,” explains Bucknell University's DeeAnn Reeder, one of the partners involved in the project. “Forest elephants ... have declined dramatically over the last two decades. 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.”

Although they are similar in appearance, forest elephants differ from their savannah relatives in both behaviour and ecology. With a diet that consists largely of fruit, the elephants help to spread seeds across a wide area, and play a vital role in the forest ecosystem.

And the pachyderms weren’t the only first for South Sudan’s forgotten forests. Other species also recorded for the first time include the African golden cat, water chevrotain, red river hog and giant pangolin. In total, 37 species were caught on camera, highlighting the ecological importance of the region.

Golden Cat Walking On Human Trail South Sudan 2015 12 11
African golden cat. Image © Flora and Fauna International and Bucknell University

“Camera trap surveys play a fundamental role in biodiversity conservation,” explains Adrian Garside from Flora and Fauna International, a conservation organisation that helped make the survey possible. “First, they provide information about the distribution, movements and behaviour of wildlife found within an area ... Second, and just as important, they offer clues as to where we need to focus our efforts, and they can even identify potential threats.”

Although the survey has given hope to wildlife researchers working in the area, there is still much to be done to protect the nation’s biodiversity. South Sudan has been plagued by civil war for decades, and a declaration of independence four years ago did little to curb the conflict.

“The violence in South Sudan and the spectre of economic collapse is a challenging situation for conservationists, but we had established strong partnerships here before the current conflict and we are all determined to continue working together through this difficult period,” says Garside.

Giant Pangolin South Sudan 2015 12 11
A giant pangolin. Image © Flora and Fauna International and Bucknell University
Bongo South Sudan 2015 12 11
Bongo antelope. Image © Flora and Fauna International and Bucknell University
Forest Buffalo South Sudan 2015 12 11
Water chevrotain. Image © Flora and Fauna International and Bucknell University
Red River Hogs South Sudan 2015 12 11
Red river hogs. Image © Flora and Fauna International and Bucknell University