By Hereward Holland
JUBA (Reuters) - The once-thriving elephant population of South Sudan could be wiped out in five years if rampant poaching is not brought under control, a wildlife protection group said on Tuesday.
After decades of civil war the African country, which became independent last year, has fewer than 5,000 elephants left, down from around 130,000 in 1986, according to the United States-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
Driven by demand from China, the price of ivory has quadrupled in the last few years, Paul Elkan, South Sudan Director at WCS, said.
"Within the next five years the elephants in South Sudan could completely be gone with the current rates of poaching," Elkan told reporters.
He said 2011 was the worst year on record for poaching worldwide, with 24 tonnes of ivory seized.
Black market trade in wildlife and wildlife products is worth an estimated $10 billion per year, according to the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking, a group of government and wildlife organizations.
Elkan said the southern rebel army ate much of the country's wildlife during the 1983-2005 civil war against the Khartoum government in the north. Raiders from the north also massacred wildlife, particularly elephants, he said.
South Sudan's zebras and rhinos may have already been wiped out, Elkan said, warning that the new nation's giraffes are also on the brink of extinction.
South Sudan's infrastructure has been devastated by years of war and economic neglect, and conservationists are now worried new road construction will make poaching and trafficking easier.
"Those elephants that survived the war are having a hard time surviving the peace," Elkan said.
Gabriel Changson Chang, South Sudan's minister of wildlife conservation and tourism, said South Sudan has struggled to prosecute poachers and smugglers because it lacks the laws to try them.
The government hopes to pass anti-poaching legislation in the middle of 2013 to help end the illegal trade, he said.
"There must be a legal framework so that when they are apprehended, they are tried according to specific articles of that act," Chang told reporters.
He said the government was reviewing a 30-year land lease agreed in 2008 with the United Arab Emirates-based Al Ain National Wildlife. The deal gave the Gulf company a hotel and wildlife concession in the pristine grasslands of the eastern Boma National Park.
The minister said the company had built a 50-room lodge on the concession but had not yet opened it.
"We need to know if they are still interested in operating that facility or not. If not it will be auctioned out to other interested investors."
South Sudan wants to set up a safari tourism industry based around the migration of an estimated 800,000 white eared kob antelope - one of the largest migrations in the world with numbers that potentially rival the migrations in Tanzania's Serengeti plains.
(Editing by Rosalind Russell)