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War’s Other Victims: Animals

Now researchers have published a quantitative study of war’s consequences for African animals — the first multi-decade, continentwide 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.

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After soldiers reached Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997, half of the elephants and three-quarters of the hippos were killed. Credit Jon Jones/Sygma, via Getty Images

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 and lead 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.”

Indeed, Dr. Pringle noted, the Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea offers respite for rare species such as red-crowned cranes and Asiatic black bears.

Teaming up with Dr. Pringle, Joshua Daskin, a conservation ecologist at Yale University, undertook a laborious search of 500 scientific studies, government white papers, nonprofit reports and park management documents. He sought out comparable wildlife counts, irrespective of the presence of conflict, from 1946 to 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 — including elephants, giraffes, zebras, hippos and wildebeests — 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. “Even with the onset of what could be a fairly minor conflict from a human perspective, we see the average wildlife population declining,” Dr. Daskin said.

Conflict frequency, in fact, was the most significant variable predicting wildlife trends among 10 other factors the researchers analyzed, 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 continentwide 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 Dr. Hillman-Smith, who spent 22 years in Garamba conserving the park and its northern white rhinos.

In times of war, poached bushmeat may feed troops, local people and refugees, while valuable assets like ivory and rhino horn may be used to fund the struggle. Arms and ammunition also tend to become more widely available, Dr. Hillman-Smith said, and a general breakdown of law and order makes poaching easier.

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