Armed conflict and warfare is one of the best predictors of wildlife declines in Africa. As wars break out, the animals in surrounding regions and protected areas will inevitably suffer, a new study has found. But it is not all bad news, as researchers also note that these struggles rarely lead to extinction.
This might on the surface seem like an obvious finding, but it was never that clear-cut. Before this study, there was conflicting evidence as to how war impacted wildlife, confounded by examples like the positive effect of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. It now seems that they are exceptions and that frequent warfare causes local wildlife populations to enter a downward spiral.
“The most surprising finding is the strength of the relationship between the presence of conflict and declines in large mammals,” explained Hugh Possingham, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy. “One might have imagined that the magnitude or scale of conflict would be the driver, but the mere presence of conflict seems to be a strong predictor in its own right.”
Publishing the results in Nature, the researchers looked at the trends of 253 animal populations representing 36 species of large mammal, ranging from antelopes to elephants, which occur in 126 areas in 19 countries. From this data, they were able to show that while there was no statistical effect on these wildlife trends from activities such as mining, urban development, or corruption, there was for frequent conflicts.
There are numerous examples of where armed conflict has led to the crash in wildlife populations, from the decline in mountain gorillas on the Rwanda-DRC border to the decimation of elephants in Chad. In fact, the research now shows that over 70 percent of Africa’s supposedly protected areas were touched in some way by war between 1946 and 2010.
Despite so much of the continent's wild areas having been blighted with warfare, the researchers show that even those parks that have been hardest hit by conflict still remain as good candidates for conservation and rehabilitation. They found that the wildlife that may have suffered for years, decades even, can still rebound when all seems lost.
“We're presenting evidence that although mammal populations decline in war zones, they don't often go extinct,” said Joshua Daskin, co-author of the study. “With the right policies and resources, it should often be possible to reverse the declines and restore functional ecosystems, even in historically conflict-prone areas.”
Gorongosa National Park, in Mozambique, is a case in point. A 15-year civil war caused the numbers of large mammals – from lions and elephants to zebra and wildebeest – to crash by a staggering 95 percent. After being protected and restored since 2004, however, wildlife numbers have rebounded to an incredible 80 percent of pre-conflict numbers.