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Wars kill wildlife in Africa’s protected areas, study finds

African elephants in Kruger, South Africa. Photo by Rhett Butler.

  • Researchers have found that wars and armed conflict have led to severe declines in large mammal populations in Africa’s protected areas.
  • Even low-grade, infrequent conflicts were enough to reduce large mammal numbers, the study found.
  • Despite devastation, wild animal populations can recover if efforts are made to conserve them, the researchers conclude.

Wars or armed conflict of any kind can have just as devastating an impact on wildlife as on people, a new study published in Nature suggests.

Warfare can have a range of effects on wild animals: hungry soldiers and citizens can hunt animals for meat; weapons used in conflicts can kill animals; and armed groups can finance their military activity by poaching animals like elephants and rhinos for their ivory and horns. On the other hand, conflicts could reduce pressures on wildlife by moving people away from conflict zones; extractive industries like mining might stop. The overall effect of war on wildlife, though, remains unknown, write researchers Joshua Daskin of Yale University and Robert Pringle of Princeton University in the U.S.

To find out what the net effect is, Daskin and Pringle analyzed data collected between 1946 and 2010 on more than 250 populations of 36 species of large herbivorous mammals, such as elephants, antelopes, hippos, rhinos and giraffes, distributed across 126 protected areas in Africa. The researchers found that more than 70 percent of the African parks were affected by armed conflicts during the study period. They also found that the frequency of war — and not the intensity of war — was the single most important factor explaining the trends in wildlife populations relative to all others they had looked at: As the number of conflicts increased, wildlife populations declined.

In Mozambique, for example, governments and conflict groups used the Gorongosa National Park during conflicts between 1977 and 1992. The researchers found that these wars devastated large mammal populations in the park. Elephant numbers declined by more than 75 percent by the early 2000s, and numbers of buffalo, hippos, wildebeest and zebra were down to double or even single digits.

“The most surprising finding is the strength of the relationship between the presence of conflict and declines in large mammals,” Hugh Possingham, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, said in a statement. “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.”

Clockwise from top left: A guard at Gorongosa park in Mozambique with an endangered pangolin; a white rhino at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park in South Africa; a Lichtenstein’s wildebeest at Gorongosa; sable antelopes at Gorongosa; zebra in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi; hippo at Gorongosa; Cape bushbuck at Gorongosa; and elephants at Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Photos by Joshua Daskin.

In fact, even low-grade, infrequent conflicts were enough to reduce large mammal populations. The researchers think this could be because of knock-on socioeconomic effects of conflict, such as the disruption of livelihoods, that could be outweighing the direct effects of military activity. These socioeconomic effects “degrade the institutional capacity for biodiversity conservation, or the collective societal ability to prioritize and pay for it,” Daskin said in the statement.

“It suggests to me that any sort of conflict needs to be avoided, even if it’s at a low level, and such conflicts may be indicative of broader social and institutional problems that are the primary drivers of mammal declines,” Possingham added. “Bottom line — to stop threats such as bushmeat hunting, governance really has to be strong.”

But there is hope. Daskin and Pringle found that wild animal populations can recover if efforts are made to conserve them. In Gorongosa, wildlife populations have gone up to 80 percent of their prewar abundance since 2004, the researchers say, largely due to conservation efforts by park staff, the government and local communities.

“Our results show that the case of Gorongosa could be general,” Pringle said. “Gorongosa is as close as you can come to wiping out a whole fauna without extinguishing it, and even there we’re seeing that we can rehabilitate wildlife populations and regrow a functional ecosystem. That suggests that the other high-conflict sites in our study can, at least in principle, also be rehabilitated.”

Local communities must be a part of the solution, Possingham said. “In any area where large-mammal protection is a concern, one has to get the people-side of the conservation initiative sorted — establishing alternative livelihoods, law and order, education, anti-corruption, etc. — at the same time as taking habitat-protection and anti-poaching actions on the ground. If you don’t tackle the ultimate drivers such as a breakdown of civil society, then taking action on the ground and investing in park management might not work.”

Wars devastate populations of large herbivores. Photo of giraffe by Udayan Dasgupta/Mongabay.

Banner image of African elephants by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.