A Survey of the ‘War on Wildlife’: How Conflict Affects Conservation

By Bethany N. Bella

Over the last 60 years, more than two-thirds of the world’s remaining biodiversity hotspots have experienced armed conflict. The effects have been myriad, from destruction as a result of military tactics to indirect socioeconomic and political changes, like human migration and displacement. This so-called “war on wildlife” has important implications for conservation and peacebuilding efforts, according to a recent literature review published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“Through armed conflict, global socioeconomic and political dynamics can ultimately threaten local animal populations and the vulnerable human communities that rely on their services,” said Kaitlyn Gaynor, lead author of the study, via email.

The paper, a collaboration between natural and social scientists at the University of California-Berkeley, categorizes 144 case studies around the world that illustrate direct or indirect links between armed conflict and critical wildlife populations, from African elephants in Angola to mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

The results of the literature review show a clear trend towards “non-tactical” pathways of conflict affecting wildlife more than tactical. Non-tactical pathways include changing institutional dynamics (83 cases), movements of people (81 cases), and altered economies (84 cases).

In the case of Tanzania, an overreliance on illegal bush meat among refugee populations has contributed to a notable decline in some wildlife, notably small forest antelopes and the endemic Udzungwa red colobus monkey. On the other hand, the so-called “refuge effect” in places like the unpopulated demilitarized zone between North and South Korea has contributed to “flourishing natural habitat and wildlife populations since 1953.”

Gaynor et al. also counted 81 cases of military tactics and 48 cases of supporting military activities having a direct effect on wildlife. These “tactical” pathways include more traditional forms of damage, like from mines, bombs, and intentionally destroying an ecosystem.

During the Vietnam War, an estimated 2 million hectares (20 percent of national forest cover) were sprayed with herbicides on the orders of the U.S. Department of Defense to deny the National Liberation Front “cover and sanctuary.” There have been widespread ecological consequences even decades later, including nutrient-depleted soils and reduced productivity and biodiversity at the ecosystem level. Debates continue over re-seeding targeted areas with tree plantations in lieu of native forest species.

In another tactical case study reviewed by Gaynor et al., researchers found support for the claim that Turkish armed forces intentionally and systematically burned forests in Turkey’s Kurdistan region during the early 1990s as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.

Supporting military activities include cases where high-value wildlife products, like ivory, have provided financial support to armed groups, or when militia groups have harvested certain species for food.

Governance Voids Leave Long-Lasting Scars

The most common pathway overall was weakened institutional enforcement, cited in nearly half of the cases surveyed. The breakdown of institutions during armed conflict, not only at the national level but also at state and local, “frequently extended far beyond the conflict in space and time, disrupting all aspects of human society and imposing far-reaching effects on wildlife,” write the authors.

“Such institutional collapses create major challenges to post-war conservation efforts and exacerbate the effects of other negative pathways linking war to wildlife.” Without the ability to consistently support and manage conservation activities during periods of violent conflict, “institutions are largely unable to enforce laws and regulations governing natural resource use.”

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Okapi Reserve, for example, elephant and bush meat poaching increased substantially during the war of 1995-2006 because fewer park rangers were on staff. Similarly, the Colombian government’s inability to wrest control of some areas from rebel groups has led to increased rates of deforestation and forest fragmentation.

Gaynor et al. write that the review is merely the beginning of better understanding how conflict influences wildlife populations. Despite an understanding among ecologists and conservationists that violent conflict has a major effect on ecosystems, there is “relatively little research and associated policy” on the connection, they say. There’s a clear need to do better “to inform effective long-term management” of these habitats for conservation practitioners, specifically.

“This research should be interdisciplinary, collaborative, and innovative, acknowledging the nuances and diversity of conflict types, regions, and wildlife taxa,” Gaynor et al. conclude.

The review comes at a time when human migration, conflict, development, and climate change threaten to destabilize many ecosystems around the world.

“By identifying pathways linking war to wildlife, we hope to break down some of these socio-ecological complexities to guide research and inform interventions,” said Gaynor.

This story also appears on New Security Beat