by Andro Mathewson
The multi-layered consequences of human conflict often overlook animal suffering. Studies tend to focus on the human toll of conflict and the scourge of war, often concentrating on the loss of human life or the devastation brought by conflict upon the economies of warring states. To quote Sir David Attenborough, ‘All life is related’, and as with other global issues such as climate change and urbanisation, human action has a significant impact on wildlife. Throughout the history of warfare, animals have often suffered to the same extent as humans – from war horses in Ancient Eurasia to their involvement in the Second World War; carrier pigeons from the time of Cyrus of Persia to their use by ISIS in the Levant; dogs from the Iron Age Kingdom of Lydia to their modern deployments across the world. The role of domesticated animals in warfare has been thoroughly researched but less work and no general consensus exists on the While there are few cases where conflicts or human tragedy have relaxed environmental pressures, known as the ‘refuge effect’ – such as Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone and the DMZ between North and South Korea– the overall general trend shows that warfare is largely harmful to wild flora and fauna. From Cheetah cubs in the Horn of Africa to Kashmiri stags, endangered animals are suffering from human conflicts, climate change, and the rise in illegal wildlife trading, all of which continue to contribute heavily to the decline in animal populations across the world.
Armed conflicts severely increase the level of poaching and unlawful wildlife trading of endangered species. Wild animals find themselves in the crossfire of military engagements for many reasons. As many modern conflicts are fought in extremely biodiverse states or border regions, the latter commonly found along natural borders such as rivers or mountain ranges, the propensity for humans and animals to intersect in these areas surges.
Over the past half-century, more than eighty per cent of armed conflicts overlapped with biodiversity hotspots – within these conflict zones, the effect on wildlife stems from direct or indirect causes. Understanding these effects should be a priority to scholars working in the nexus of conflict and animal conservation. The majority of direct effects originate from the use of artillery and ordnance, hunting for consumption, and poaching for trade to finance military groups. Perhaps the most prominent example of the ecological effects of warfare is that of the use of dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange by the United States in Vietnam which has left contaminated soil and tainted water in this region to this day. During the same conflict, the U.S. Air Force frequently targeted and strafed elephants as they were used by members of the Viet Cong to transport equipment and munitions. Another more recent example, which also includes elephants, is the hunting of the species for their ivory to sponsor al Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa Al-Shabaab. According to an investigation sponsored by the Elephant Action League, the terrorist group generated more than $200,000 a month from the sale of Elephant tusks.
On the other hand, the indirect effects of human conflict on wildlife transpire due to the weakening of institutions and the disruption of animal conservation work. During armed conflicts, domestic and international institutions naturally prioritize restoring order, thus deprioritizing the protection of wildlife in the region. Accordingly, conservation groups tend to withdraw from regions under conflict to protect their assets and ensure the safety of their workers. These indirect effects are particularly prevalent in some regions in Africa where national parks and their rangers are threatened by militants. For example, the ongoing insurgency in the north of Burkina Faso has created an extremely volatile situation in one of Africa’s most biodiverse regions. The country’s national parks and wildlife reserves became conflict zones where park rangers faced an increase in lion poaching for profit and insurgent groups hunting for bushmeat. Another similar case is the Congo’s Okapi Reserve in the DRC where elephant and bushmeat poaching grew substantially during the civil war at the turn of the century as fewer park rangers were available – many park rangers were engaged in the fighting, while others returned home to protect their families.
Overall, the available literature suggests that human conflict does have a significant effect on animal populations and conservation efforts, something that is frequently overlooked. To assist conservation efforts, a detailed large-scale evaluation of war’s effects on wildlife would be indispensable to assist decision-makers in their efforts to theorize, predict, and act when conflicts arise. Such research will not only help those working at the nexus of conservation and conflict to develop effective and efficient practical mitigation tactics, but also those working in the field such as park rangers and veterinarians to prepare for conflicts where tensions are high and conflict is likely to occur. Bridging this gap between academic research and policy-makers is essential to support the conservation of our planet’s wildlife. Despite the bleak outlook, some excellent work has already been done. for example, the collaboration between WWF and ACAMS to raise awareness about the Illegal Wildlife Trade and to develop training to combat it; another example is the Virunga National Park’s rangers success in protecting gorillas despite the ongoing conflict in the DRC. The willingness of park rangers to continue to work despite the imminent danger, as well as continued funding of the project have been cited as reasons for its ongoing success. However, future research is crucial for conservation efforts in war-torn regions. From top-level government officials to those on the ground protecting animals, a renewed focus on this issue would ensure that the harsh effects of human conflict on wildlife are both mitigated and minimized.
Andro Mathewson is an International Relations MSc student at the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in international security, sanction regimes, military history and technologies, open-source investigations, and conservation. Andro has previously contributed to The Bulletin Of Atomic Sciences and The Texas National Security Review. Prior to his current studies, he was a Research Fellow at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. Find him on Twitter @Andro_Mathewson.
Andro Mathewson is a Capability Support Officer at the HALO Trust. Outside of this role, his research focuses on international security and military technologies. Andro has previously contributed to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the UK Defence Journal, and the Center for International Maritime Security. Before his current role, he received a Master’s in International Relations from the University of Edinburgh and was a research fellow at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also received his BA in PPE and German. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of The HALO Trust.