Hamish Clarke / Cosmos Online – 2008-03-26 22:53:57
(May 9. 2007) — Landmines, chemical agents and hunting for bushmeat all take a heavy toll on wildlife during war, but on occasion animals can fare surprisingly well in times of conflict. What can we learn from these examples?
After ten years of bitter civil combat in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the outlook for the eastern lowland gorilla was looking grim. The combat itself, a marked increase in the bushmeat trade and illegal mining to fund the conflict had all taken a heavy toll. Conservation International was one of many non-governmental organisations chased out by the war in 1994. But upon their return ten years later, they found that gorilla numbers had collapsed by as much as 70 per cent.
This tale has a familiar ring to it. Asian elephants in Vietnam and Sri Lanka, waterfowl in Iraq, bluefin tuna and green turtles in Lebanon, rhinos in Nepal and hippos in the DRC have all suffered the fallout of human conflict.
It doesn’t always have to be that way though. During a similar period in the 1990s, a radically different fate befell the eastern mountain gorilla, a montane cousin of the lowland gorilla. The species shot to fame after the work of conservationist Dian Fossey and the subsequent movie Gorillas in the Mist. Amidst Rwanda’s own infamously bloody civil war, mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes National Park experienced a remarkable upswing, of a round a fifth, in numbers.
This begs the question: why would a species do well at times of conflict? If conservationists can pin down the reasons, they might be able to learn from these experiences to help species survive future conflicts.
The list of ways in which warfare can harm wildlife and their habitats is lengthy. Munitions, landmines and chemical agents can cause both immediate and long-lasting effects. Refugees and soldiers spill into wild habitats during conflicts, as does poaching and over-harvesting.
“Here in [Africa’s] Great Lakes Region you are never far from war,” says Andre Plumptre, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Albertine Rift Program in Uganda. Plumptre has seen the effect of war on wildlife first hand and says that conserving species while finding ways to work alongside a background of unrest is a way of life.
Large animals tend to suffer disproportionately as they are hunted for bushmeat, he says. That can also be “bad for the rest of the biodiversity, if it leads to loss of their habitat or conversion to another land use.”
One such example is Akagera Park in Rwanda, which has shrunk to a third of its original area as a direct result of the civil war. The bushmeat trade also hurts conservation efforts indirectly as the loss of large ‘flagship’ species makes it much harder to generate funds and retain political support.
Plumptre co-authored a 2002 study in US journal Conservation Biology cataloguing effects such as these and detailing a litany of species battered by war.
For example, during the Vietnam War (1955 to 1975) Asian elephants were routinely strafed and bombed by US aircraft to prevent the Vietcong using them for transport. Landmines continue to maim wildlife and livestock, in addition to people, to this day.
Furthermore, around one hundred thousand tonnes of herbicide – such as the ‘defoliant’ Agent Orange – were sprayed over not just Vietnam, but also Cambodia and Laos during the conflict. A recent survey in an area of Vietnam untouched by the conflict found 150 species of birds; but a comparable area, blanketed with the herbicide during the war, was found to contain just 24 species of birds.
Asian elephants have also been caught in the crossfire in the ongoing Sri Lankan civil war. Starting in 1984, elephants that managed to avoid munitions have had their migratory patterns disrupted by the conflict. In 1986 a national park was directly attacked by rebels, killing staff and wildlife and crippling infrastructure.
Surprisingly though, some species do quite well in times of conflict. The answer may lie in the compelling deterrent conflict creates for people, and the ability of species to bounce back when humans leave them well alone.
According to Plumptre, war can sometimes give species the breathing space they need to rebound. “War can be good in that it keeps people from moving into an area and settling there,” he says.
He cites the example of an area of the DRC west of Lake Tanganyika, which has been unstable because of rebel activity until the last few years.
“The forest is amazingly intact and few people live in the region despite the place having been totally unprotected for more than 50 years,” says Plumptre. “If there had not been rebels here this forest would likely have been finished by now.”
The deterrent effect isn’t new either. Paul Martin and Christine Szuter from the University of Arizona in the US studied areas disputed by Native American tribes from the 17th to the 19th centuries. They found that disagreement between tribes over these areas created buffer zones with few inhabitants, where species such as bison, elk and deer thrived.
The Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is perhaps the ultimate no man’s land. Created in 1953 by the U.N., the DMZ (four-km-wide but 248 km-long) divides the Korean Peninsula in two and is the most heavily armed border in the world.
Thanks to this strange confluence of events, the DMZ is a treasure trove of biodiversity, packed with 149 U.N.-listed World Heritage Sites. The zone is home to a significant chunk of Korean biodiversity and two endangered cranes use it as a pit-stop on a migratory journey spanning thousands of kilometres across the globe.
Present day Australia is not the first place you’d think to go looking for war zones. One thing the country does have in increasing abundance though are military training areas, and these often have high conservation value too, says zoologist John Woinarski with the Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts in Darwin.
This is likely down to the fact that much of the rest of Northern Australia, at least the bits that aren’t desert, are given over to cattle production, he says. “In this environment, any lands that aren’t managed for cows will have biodiversity gains.”
Working in a War Zone
In between dodging bullets, conservationists working in war zones are constantly trying to extract maximum benefit from severely limited resources. But can we learn from the experiences of species that have been ravaged by conflict to better protect others in the future?
A study published in April 2007 in the UK journal Biology Letters argues that current efforts to protect endangered species during wartime may need rethinking. Guy Cowlishaw, a conservationist at the Institute of Zoology in London, UK, and colleagues studied changes in the bushmeat trade in the DRC during periods of peace and conflict. Surprisingly, the number of anti-poaching patrols had little effect on bushmeat offtake.
What they found instead was that social factors were critical in determining the opportunities of poachers. In rural areas where village chiefs maintained a tight control over the supply of automatic weapons, poaching was restricted even during periods of armed conflict. In urban areas the outbreak of fighting lead to a catastrophic loss of control over arms and an increase in poaching.
These results point to the need for conservationists to establish closer links with the community. “Our results indicate that sociopolitical factors can be an important determinant of species offtake,” say the authors.
“The impact of human conflict on wildlife and habitats is complex. While stretches of depopulated no man’s land between warring forces can provide a sanctuary for wildlife, most war zones are more likely to act as population sinks through the proliferation of armaments and uncontrolled poaching by refugees and combatants,” they wrote. “Given the threat that warfare poses and the prevalence of armed conflicts, it is imperative to identify how wildlife and habitats can best be safeguarded.”
Their study is hopefully the first of many that will provide more data to help conservationists understand why the eastern mountain gorilla was able to do so well during the Rwandan civil war – and also help them find ways to protect less fortunate species such as the eastern lowland gorilla, which was so decimated during the DRC’s neighbouring conflict.
Hamish Clarke is a science journalist based in Sydney, and a regular contributor to Cosmos Online.
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