Though they may qualify as the world’s biggest, the collars worn by the elephants of South Sudan are anything but showy. These GPS devices will help give these animals a chance for survival as threats from ivory poachers increase.

In late May and early June, staff from WCS and South Sudan’s Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism (MWCT) conducted the collaring operation as part of an effort to track and monitor the majority of South Sudan’s remaining populations. The country’s elephants are estimated to number fewer than 5,000, down from the 80,000 thought to inhabit the region in the 1960s–70s.

Elephant herds in South Sudan were decimated during years of civil war. The survivors face threats due to insecurity and an increase in ivory poaching. The situation has been made worse by the presence of rebel groups in the sub-region, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, which have poached elephants and trafficked ivory as means of sustaining their operations, according to confirmed reports.

The GPS/satellite tracking effort is part of a USAID/WCS funded elephant monitoring and protection program launched in 2009, an initiative that also includes aerial surveillance from planes, land-based anti-poaching patrols, and intelligence-led enforcement.

“I salute the efforts and bravery of the Government of South Sudan’s wildlife personnel and WCS staff who are working to protect wildlife and manage protected areas in these remote zones,” said Dr. Cristián Samper, President and CEO of WCS. “The recent expansion of the South Sudan elephant monitoring and protection program is evidence of the serious measures and commitment needed to help secure the country’s protected areas and wildlife for the benefit of the people and new nation.”

Dr. Paul Elkan, WCS’s South Sudan Country Director, said: “The elephant collaring is critical to improving our understanding of the location and movements of South Sudan’s elephants and providing effective protection. Real-time location data from the collared elephants, combined with aerial surveillance, intelligence-led enforcement, and terrestrial patrolling, will enable the MWCT and WCS to watch over the safety of the elephant groups, detect poaching threats, target anti-poaching operations to arrest poachers and traffickers, and secure the elephants.”

In order to successfully cover the majority of the remaining elephant populations across the country, the survey team received support from a helicopter and two WCS survey aircraft. Participants were unable to immobilize and collar elephants in the Boma National Park area, where armed conflict prevented access. These remaining elephant groups will be collared later in the year, security permitting.