Africa, home to mountains of desert sand, seas of rolling grasses, and labyrinths of dense jungle, is an ecological “last frontier.” A vast range of ecosystems spans the continent and are considered among the most biodiverse in the world, standing as the last remaining vestiges of sizable megafauna—large-bodied wildlife—over widespread areas. Notably among them are the wildebeests, giraffes, and lions, which serve outsized roles in maintaining the environments they inhabit. While their preservation has been declared a high priority, the future of these iconic animals is presently in doubt.
Why so? Despite the enormous, concerted effort on the part of governments, NGO’s, and conservation groups, Africa is also home to the bulk of the world’s armed conflicts.
Since its messy period of decolonization, Africa has been ravaged by civil war, economic instability, and genocide. Enduring almost 90 percent of all war-related deaths since 1990, Africa presently claims almost 9 million refugees and displaced persons. Civil war and ethnic strife in the Congo, the Niger River Delta, Darfur and Somalia has killed millions and impeded desperately needed social development and economic investment. Across sub-Saharan Africa, war has had an enormous human toll; and, as it turns out, an enormous toll on wildlife.
A first-of-its-kind quantitative study was recently published in the scientific journal Nature. In collaboration with Princeton University ecologist, Robert Pringle, Yale University’s Joshua Daskin and his research concluded that conflict is the single greatest factor in wildlife declines across Africa. Surprisingly, other commonly attributed drivers of wildlife decline such as drought, urbanization, and political corruption were not found to be statistically significant. In fact, the researchers observed that during “peacetime” animal populations were generally stable, and sometimes even increased.
To reach these findings, the duo initially embarked upon a massive data hunt; an undertaking the scale of which had never been attempted before. They started by mapping all African protected areas documented by the UN, and then used international databases to chart the locations and durations of armed conflicts. The results were discouraging. Continent-wide, over 70 percent of protected areas overlapped at least partially with one or more conflict, and a quarter had experienced at least nine years of conflict.
They then decided to collect population data on a sample of 36 large animals whose ranges included documented protected areas, which were easy to count in surveys and thus had consistent and reliable data with respect to population size. By combing reputable academic papers and “grey literature” such as national tourism boards and conservation groups, they were able to glean information on population sizes of large mammals over time—a list that ultimately yielded over 3,800 data points. The researchers then constructed a multi-species model, charting growth and decline of population densities against the frequency of conflicts. Holding variables such as drought, urbanization, and mineral resources constant at their medians, the results showed a clear negative correlation between wildlife populations and duration of conflicts.
At first glance, the implications of a single factor–war–outweighed other reasonably apparent explanations (such as habitat loss), and proved to be beyond counterintuitive. In fact, that war should have such a detrimental effect on wildlife was markedly unusual, as widespread anecdotal evidence exists for wildlife recoveries showing how reduced economic activity puts less pressure on the environment. For example, the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) along the border of North and South Korea has become a wildlife sanctuary, home to endangered species such as the Asiatic black bear and spotted seal.
The circumstances present in sub-Saharan Africa create a perfect storm of destruction for wildlife sanctuaries. Firstly, the reliance on bushmeat, the meat of African wild animals, for sustenance by marauding armies and displaced civilians leads to poaching because during wartime governments lose both the motivation and capacity to enforce anti-poaching laws. As agricultural production becomes more difficult and rural communities are devastated by looting and plunder, refugees and guerilla soldiers fan out, increasing environmental pressures as more bushmeat is harvested.
Exotic animals such as the rhinoceros and the elephant have been long prized for their ivory horns, which rebel militias illegally sell at enormous profit. In 2014, ivory fetched up to $2100 per kilogram in the Chinese marketplace. An intact horn sells for $45,000 per pound–twice the price of gold. Horns are considered to be hot-ticket investments in China, where they are prized as showcase pieces and revered for their reputed value as traditional healing agents. While a Chinese ban on ivory trading took effect this year, a thriving international black market and smuggling operation still exists. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the cumulative ramifications of these practices have resulted in a 50% decline in wildlife populations since 1970, with the majority of declines coming from Africa and Asia.
While this prognosis sounds grim, it’s not all bad news. Despite the impact of armed conflicts on ecosystems, they rarely lead to the extirpation, or localized extinction, of entire species. In addition, intensive conservation efforts have persistently striven to yield dramatic recoveries of wildlife populations. The Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where Daskin and Pringle conducted their study, is a prime example of such efforts. The Mozambican Civil War, which lasted from 1977 to 1992, decimated over 90% of large mammals inhabiting the park. In an impressive turn-around, aggressive anti-poaching efforts, combined with human development programs and socio-economic assistance have allowed wildlife populations to recover to 80% of their pre-war levels. It is this two-pronged approach, which seeks to curb ecologically harmful activities such as poaching, while addressing the human issues that lead to such destructive behavior in the first place, that the researchers credit for the project’s success.
In an interview with the social networking service ResearchGate, Daskin had this to say about the effort: “The impressive recovery was enabled mainly by creating the conditions necessary to allow nature to take its course; the few remaining wildlife were allowed to reproduce under the watch of park rangers who conduct anti-poaching patrols, but also in conjunction with critical human development programs. Providing socio-economic assistance helps alleviate the need for people to hunt wildlife. Gorongosa brings hundreds of school children to the park for educational wildlife safaris, provides agricultural assistance to nearby farmers, and runs medical programs.”
Ultimately, the researchers argue, conservation efforts should be two-fold, including both ecological restoration and socioeconomic infrastructure. Hopefully, the realization of these twin goals will create safer and more sustainable societies across the continent, wherein both two-legged and four-legged inhabitants can live without the threat of violence.