African ele­phant, hippo, rhino pop­u­la­tions shrink in wartime

For the most party, a new study shows, an­i­mals don’t do well when hu­mans fight. How­ever, they do re­cover

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOCUS - KAREN KA­PLAN

WASHINGTON — To the list of ways that hu­mans are mak­ing it hard for ze­bras, gi­raffes and other large mam­mals to sur­vive in the wild, you can now add war.

Re­searchers have new ev­i­dence that an­i­mals are exquisitely vul­ner­a­ble to the ef­fects of war­fare. They an­a­lyzed 65 years of armed con­flicts in Africa and found that ex­po­sure to just one year of war within a 20year pe­riod was enough to desta­bi­lize pop­u­la­tions in the wild.

“The mere oc­cur­rence of con­flict, ir­re­spec­tive of its hu­man death toll, was suf­fi­cient to di­min­ish wildlife pop­u­la­tions,” ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished Wed­nes­day in the jour­nal Na­ture. “Even low-grade, in­fre­quent con­flict is suf­fi­cient to drop pop­u­la­tion tra­jec­to­ries be­low re­place­ment.”

Con­sid­er­ing that war is bad for peo­ple, it may seem ob­vi­ous that it’s bad for an­i­mals. But pre­vi­ous case stud­ies have found it can have mixed ef­fects.

In some cases, an­i­mals get caught in the cross­fire of can­nons, large guns and other ar­tillery. Hun­gry sol­diers go hunt­ing for bush­meat. Poach­ers seek­ing to fi­nance their mil­i­tary ex­cur­sions may tar­get ele­phants, rhinoceroses or other de­sir­able species.

But in other cases, com­bat can scare peo­ple away from wildlife ar­eas, re­lax­ing the pres­sure on the an­i­mals that live there. It may even force busi­nesses to aban­don min­ing and drilling op­er­a­tions, giv­ing an­i­mals a fur­ther re­spite.

Joshua Daskin and Robert M. Pringle of Prince­ton Univer­sity’s Depart­ment of Ecol­ogy and Evo­lu­tion­ary Bi­ol­ogy wanted to see if they could find an over­ar­ch­ing ef­fect of war­fare, with a fo­cus on Africa.

They be­gan by look­ing at all pro­tected wildlife ar­eas in Africa that were at least 5 square kilo­me­tres in size. Ac­cord­ing to the World Data­base on Pro­tected Ar­eas main­tained by the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture and the United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme, there were 3,585 such ar­eas, spread across 51 coun­tries.

Next, Daskin and Pringle ex­am­ined the dates and lo­ca­tions of armed con­flicts be­tween 1946 and 2010 to see when and where they over­lapped with the pro­tected ar­eas. To qual­ify as an “armed con­flict,” an event had to in­volve at least one hu­man death and be re­lated to an “or­ga­nized con­flict” that in­volved at least 25 deaths in the same year.

Over­all, they found that armed con­flicts touched 71 per cent of Africa’s pro­tected ar­eas at least once dur­ing the study pe­riod. In ad­di­tion, 25 per cent of them ex­pe­ri­enced nine years of con­flict or more.

To see how the an­i­mals in those ar­eas were af­fected, the re­searchers scoured sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture for re­ports on mam­mals that lived there. Their list in­cluded an­telopes, gi­raffes, ele­phants, lions, chee­tahs, ze­bras, ba­boons, go­ril­las, warthogs, hye­nas, rhinoceroses, hip­popota­muses and gazelles.

They were able to find in­for­ma­tion on 253 pop­u­la­tions of an­i­mals from 36 species liv­ing in 126 pro­tected ar­eas within 19 coun­tries. Each of these pop­u­la­tions had been counted mul­ti­ple times in the same area.

Then they built a se­ries of math­e­mat­i­cal mod­els to see which fac­tors helped ex­plain the changes in those an­i­mal pop­u­la­tions. The fre­quency of armed con­flict was only one of the fac­tors con­sid­ered; others in­cluded the in­ten­sity of those con­flicts (as mea­sured by hu­man death toll), the pop­u­la­tion den­sity of hu­mans liv­ing nearby, the dis­tance from a pro­tected area to the near­est ur­ban cen­tre, the size of the pro­tected ar­eas and the size of the an­i­mals.

The mod­els that did the best job of pre­dict­ing changes in an­i­mal pop­u­la­tions re­lied on in­for­ma­tion about the fre­quency of armed con­flicts, ac­cord­ing to the study. These mod­els showed that when pro­tected ar­eas were peace­ful, an­i­mal pop­u­la­tions were “gen­er­ally sta­ble,” Daskin and Pringle wrote. But pop­u­la­tions shrank over time when their homes were ex­posed to “even low lev­els of con­flict,” the re­searchers wrote.

Over the en­tire 65-year pe­riod, all it took to set an­i­mal pop­u­la­tions on a path of de­cline was a sin­gle year of war in a span of two decades. When the team nar­rowed its fo­cus to the more re­cent pe­riod from 1989 to 2010, it found an­i­mals were even more sen­si­tive —ex­po­sure to war in one year of a 50-year span would hin­der a pop­u­la­tion’s abil­ity to main­tain it­self.

“Con­flict fre­quency con­sis­tently pre­dicted wildlife de­cline,” the re­searchers wrote.

Other things did not. For in­stance, the size of the pro­tected ar­eas didn’t seem to have any bear­ing on the pop­u­la­tions of the an­i­mals liv­ing in them. Nor did the in­ten­sity of the con­flict go­ing on around them.

These and other find­ings led the re­searchers to hy­poth­e­size that mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity per se isn’t the prob­lem for an­i­mals; rather, it’s “the ef­fects of so­cioe­co­nomic up­heaval and liveli­hood dis­rup­tion as­so­ci­ated con­flict” that are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.

Fur­ther re­search will be needed to see whether their hy­poth­e­sis is cor­rect, the re­searchers wrote.

They also noted a po­ten­tial sil­ver lin­ing: Al­though a small amount of war ex­po­sure had a mea­sur­able ef­fect on wild an­i­mals, the size of that ef­fect was “less se­vere” than pre­vi­ous re­search would have led them to ex­pect.

Even in lo­ca­tions sub­jected to many years of armed con­flict, ex­am­ples of “ex­tinc­tion events” were rare. The re­searchers took this as a sign that “post-con­flict re­cov­ery will typ­i­cally be pos­si­ble.”

There’s al­ready some anec­do­tal ev­i­dence to sup­port this op­ti­mistic view, Daskin and Pringle wrote: Ef­forts by gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion ex­perts have helped re­store wildlife pop­u­la­tions in Mozam­bique’s Goron­gosa Na­tional Park as well as in Rwanda’s Ak­agera Na­tional Park.

COUR­TESY ROBERT PRINGLE, VIA THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Al­though some an­i­mals are killed by bul­lets or bombs, changes in so­cial and eco­nomic con­di­tions hurt an­i­mals, too, a study finds. Above, ele­phants at Goron­gosa Na­tional Park, Mozam­bique.

COUR­TESY JOSHUA DASKIN, VIA THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Even low lev­els of con­flict can re­sult in loss of wildlife and desta­bi­lize pop­u­la­tions in the wild. Above, a hip­popota­mus in Mozam­bique.

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