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Culled war: Africa's complicated conflict relationship

Culled war: Africa's complicated conflict relationship
03 Mar
War and conservation have a complicated relationship, with two studies undertaken in Africa showing significantly different responses to conflict and the impact on natural environments

Armed conflict has played a major role in preventing deforestation from escalating to levels which many conservationists had otherwise feared. Across Africa, the threat of violence has kept large areas of forested land free from human interference, allowing the vegetation to thrive.

A recent Yale University study, analysing both early colonial maps and palaeontological records such as preserved pollen, leaf and charcoal specimens, found that African closed-canopy forests have shrunk overall by 21.7 per cent since 1900, far less than the 35 to 55 per cent asserted by previous estimates. While much of West Africa has witnessed large-scale logging, forests in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic have instead grown in size, primarily because of the long-running violence that both these countries have endured.

‘As conservationists, it is easy to look at this study and see it as good news – that deforestation isn’t as bad as we thought,’ says Carla Staver, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University. ‘The bad news is that central African forests have been spared because violent conflicts have prevented economic development, at the costs of human lives and livelihoods.’

Unfortunately, that positive impact to forests from conflict appears to not also apply to Africa’s animal populations. For example, Gorongosa, a highly biodiverse reserve in central Mozambique, saw over 90 per cent of its wildlife killed during the 1962-1974 fight for independence, followed immediately by the destructive 1976-1992 civil war. After 30 years of conflict, the reserve’s elephant population had slumped by a dramatic 75 per cent, while many other iconic species, including zebra, hippo, buffalo and wildebeest, were verging on becoming locally extinct.

Gorongosa was the starting case study for a Princeton University study into how much wildlife across Africa has suffered due to war. ‘Different studies of different places at different times have found both positive and negative effects of conflict on biodiversity,’ explains Robert Pringle, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, ‘but the overall net effect had never been measured’.

After study co-author Josh Daskin spent years extracting the necessary wildlife data from nearly 500 sources, he and Pringle analysed 36 different species – everything from antelopes to elephants – living within 126 protected areas, spanning 19 countries. They calculated that up to 71 per cent of Africa’s protected areas experienced one or more conflicts between 1946 and 2010, with local fauna consequentially often devastated by soldiers and civilians hunting wildlife for valuable commodities such as meat and ivory. 

They also discovered that while only a small level of conflict was required in order to cause a significant decline in animal populations, those species were never entirely wiped out, enabling them to potentially recover, were the violent human interferences to be removed. Gorongosa itself has seen wildlife numbers dramatically bouncing back since 2004, now reaching up to 80 per cent of their numbers prior to the conflict. ‘Our results show that the case of Gorongosa could be general,’ explains Pringle. ‘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.’

Both studies underlined the necessity for vast quantities of relevant data to be accessible in order to achieve such conclusions, a significant problem across a continent where logistical issues, including conflict, make fieldwork an extremely difficult undertaking. 

This was published in the March 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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