The Animal Cost of War

A de-horned rhino lies in the sand at Hoedspruit endangered species centre in South Africa. Rhinos are particularly vulnerable during wartime due to illegal trade of their horns for weapons. (Anna du Toit / Alamy)

A de-horned rhino lies in the sand at Hoedspruit endangered species centre in South Africa. Rhinos are particularly vulnerable during wartime due to illegal trade of their horns for weapons. (Anna du Toit / Alamy)

In 1977, two short years after Mozambique won its independence from Portugal, the country entered a brutal civil war. Fifteen years of bloody battle later, around one million lay dead, with millions more injured or displaced. But humans weren’t the only victims of this conflict.

Much of the fighting took place in the wilds of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, a 1,570-square mile area rife with non-human life. During wartime, soldiers turned their guns on the animals to secure food or ivory to trade for weapons. By the time the peace treaty was signed in 1992, the populations of many of Gorongosa’s large animals had been devastated—slashed by 90 percent or more.

Unfortunately, Mozambique isn’t unique. In the last half-century, more than 80 percent of major conflicts raged within hotspots of biodiversity, claiming animal lives along with human. Yet nobody has quantified the impact of these deadly affairs on wildlife, until now.

A new study published in the journal Nature sifts through troves of data going back to 1946 to put numbers on the effects of human conflict on large mammal populations throughout Africa. The results suggest that, of all the factors studied, repeated armed conflict has the biggest impact on wildlife—and even low-level conflict can cause profound declines in large herbivore populations. But there is a glimmer of hope: While most populations included in the analysis declined, few entirely collapsed, suggesting that in many locations wildlife can return once humans set down their arms.

When it comes to conservation, not all conflicts are created equal. In some cases, the isolating effects of war can have a surprisingly protective effect on landscapes. A common example is the staggering diversity of plants and animals currently thriving in the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Similarly, marine life is flourishing in the thriving coral reefs along Somali pirate routes off the coast of Yemen, Djibouti and Somaliland, where the threat of plundering keeps fishermen and other locals away.

This wasn’t the case in Mozambique, where the magnitude of wildlife destruction was staggering; in some ways, it’s still being felt today. The authors of the new study, Robert Pringle, an ecologist at Princeton University, and Josh Daskin, conservation ecologist at Yale University, saw this wartime destruction firsthand during a visit to the park in 2012. It got them thinking: “How typical is the Gorongosa story?” queries Pringle. “Is it frequently that populations are nearly wiped out—or could the effects in some cases even be positive?”

This question wouldn’t be easy to answer, given the  scarcity of data from regions of conflict. Daskin began by scouring every document about regional wildlife he could find—NGO management reports, peer-reviewed articles, white papers, unpublished reports, foreign language reports and more. He cast his net wide to “squeeze all the data he possibly could for analysis,” says Pringle, who was Daskin’s PhD advisor at the time. The researchers focused on large plant-eaters—elephants, hippos, kudu—as information on small animals in conflict zones is hard to come by. But Pringle notes that, “technology and biology is marching rapidly forward,” meaning tracking tinier creatures will become increasingly easier.

From this analysis, Daskin teased out around 4,000 counts of wildlife populations in conflict zones between the years of 1946 to 2010. The duo filtered these numbers to account for differences in how creatures were counted and to limit their data to only the highest of qualities. The filtering left 253 populations of large herbivores, which had comparable data for at least two timepoints. The researchers paired this data with info about historical conflicts gleaned from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and the Peace Research Institute Oslo to examine trends in animal population changes and periods of conflict.

Next, they had to figure out what else could be impacting wildlife populations. As Pringle puts it, with any analysis this large, “there’s a risk that if you just grab a variable like conflict frequency and correlate it with something like wildlife population trends, you might get a significant correlation even in the absence of a significant mechanistic link.” In other words: correlation doesn’t prove causation. There might be other factors at play.

To test the strength of the link between repeated conflict and wildlife populations, the duo also tested the relationship between wildlife numbers and nine other factors that could affect long-term animal well-being, including body mass, protected area size and urbanization. Overall, conflict had a consistently negative impact on creature populations. But it was the greater frequency of the conflict, not the intensity or loss of human lives, that predicted the intensity of animal decline.

“This field is one where you can find ... theoretical papers, citing theoretical papers ad nauseum, so it’s very refreshing to see someone put some numbers on something,” says Thor Hanson, a conservation biologist whose researches wildlife in conflict zones and was not involved in the study. He adds that the method of quantifying and analyzing the impacts is “new and important for this field.”

Surprisingly to the researchers, their results showed that wildlife suffered whether conflict was raging or simmering; conflict intensity wasn’t a strong factor in predicting the intensity of wildlife decline. Daskin speculates that this could reflect the dramatic impact that social and political disruption can have on wildlife: For instance, the movement of displaced people into protected areas or the reduction of funding and staff for conservation organizations strongly tax wildlife.

Hanson agrees with the interpretation. “That’s something that is not unexpected,” he adds. But until this latest study, it’s been challenging to “do more than sort of pontificate about [it],” he says.

Daskin has witnessed how even low-level conflict can immediately direct resources away from a region. In 2013, during his first field season studying the lingering ecosystem impacts of the civil war in Gorongosa, he returned to his camp one evening to an unusual energy. “People were sort of buzzing around like I hadn’t seen before,” he says.

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