War's other victims: animals

Last Updated 29 January 2018, 17:46 IST

In 1996, when war broke out in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, just 31 northern white rhinos remained in Garamba National Park, the last stronghold of this endangered species. Armed militias reached the park less than a year later, and half of the park's elephants, two-thirds of its buffaloes and three-quarters of its hippos disappeared in three short months. Poaching of northern white rhinos also resumed, despite conservationists' best efforts. Today, after a succession of armed clashes, only three northern white rhinos survive - all transplants from a zoo in the Czech Republic, and all confined to a single Kenyan conservancy.

That the rhinos' habitat included a part of Africa plagued by human conflict was "desperately unfortunate," said Kes Hillman-Smith, a Nairobi-based conservationist and author of Garamba: Conservation in Peace and War. "The endless wars there have taken their toll on all the wildlife in the region." Many case studies have demonstrated that war can affect the survival of local populations, sometimes threatening entire species. But the research is mixed: in some cases, conflict actually seems to aid animals. Now, researchers have published a quantitative study of war's consequences for African animals - the first multi-decade, continent-wide analysis. The findings, published in
Nature, are both surprising and encouraging. Compared to all other measured factors, conflict is the most consistent predictor of species declines. Yet the northern white rhino is the exception.

War rarely leads to extinction, a finding that underscores the importance of post-conflict restoration efforts. "We show that war is bad, but not as bad as you might assume," said Robert Pringle, an ecologist at Princeton University, USA and an author of the new study. "There are really two alternative hypotheses you can imagine," he added. "One is that war is just a disaster for everything, including environments. And the other is that pretty much anything that causes people to clear out from an area can be beneficial for wildlife."

Teaming up with Robert, Joshua Daskin, a conservation ecologist at Yale University, USA, undertook a laborious search of 500 scientific studies, government white papers, non-profit reports and park management documents. He sought out comparable wildlife counts, irrespective of the presence of conflict, from 1946-2010. The researchers then calculated various animal population trajectories over time and compared them with known conflicts. Their final list encompassed 253 populations of 36 species of herbivorous mammals in 126 protected areas throughout Africa. The scientists found that it takes relatively little conflict - just one event every two to five decades - to push animal populations to lower levels.

For rapid intervention

Conflict frequency, in fact, was the most significant variable predicting wildlife trends among 10 other factors the researchers analysed, including drought, the number of people living near a protected area and the degree of corruption found in a country. The more frequent the conflict, the greater the impact. "This continent-wide assessment confirms what many case studies have hinted at - war is a major driver of wildlife population declines across Africa," said Kaitlyn Gaynor, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied armed conflict's influence on wildlife.

The losses are likely the result of a combination of factors, said Kes. In times of war, poached bush meat may feed troops, local people and refugees, while valuable assets like ivory may be used to fund the struggle. Arms and ammunition also tend to become more widely available, Kes said, and a general breakdown of law and order makes poaching easier. Conservation organisations, she added, also tend to pull out when the shooting starts. "The greatest losses in Garamba happened in the absence of international support and when active patrolling was stopped," she said.

Yet, all is not lost during war, even when conservationists are forced to flee. Animals sometimes become scarcer and more difficult for hunters to find, Joshua said, and the populations persist at lower levels. The finding suggests that rapid intervention by conservationists can be critical for ensuring the survival and recovery of remnant populations, he said. Indeed, in the 1980s, post-conflict conservation in Garamba doubled both the northern white rhino and elephant populations in just eight years.

(Published 29 January 2018, 10:46 IST)

Follow us on