“This speaks to the pervasive nature of conflict,” says Daskin. “It affects the ability, accountability, and motivation of governments to fulfil their conservation duties. It disturbs the fabric of local societies by increasing poverty, and displacing people into protected areas where they may harvest wildlife. It leads to withdrawal of NGOs. It increases problems with law enforcement, which might lead to increases in poaching.”
To make matters worse, as others have shown, war happens most often in places where wildlife otherwise flourishes. Between 1950 and 2000, 80 percent of major armed conflicts took place in biodiversity hotspots, where animal life is at its richest and most diverse. That, says Daskin, is because the same factors that cause peril for wildlife—climate change, the harvesting of natural resources, and fast-growing human populations—can also heighten tensions between people. And so, when people declare war on each other, they inadvertently declare war on the natural world.
That seems intuitive, but several case studies have shown that war can be a boon for the wild. The Rhodesian Bush War, in what is now called Zimbabwe, created an environment so hostile that poachers couldn’t operate—and elephant populations rebounded to decadal highs. The Korean Demilitarized Zone, which snakes between North Korea and South Korea, has become a de facto national park, since the absence of people means sanctuary for red-crowned cranes, Amur leopards, and other endangered species.
But for every tale of hope, there’s also one of doom. Animals can be collateral damage, sources of meat and money, or even political leverage. In Vietnam, the chemical weapons that the U.S. military used to denude the forests of vegetation left a toxic legacy for the nation’s jungle-dwellers. In Ethiopia, black-market weapons that were sold during the country’s civil war eventually made their way into the hands of poachers. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, rebels recently threatened to kill protected gorillas if the government took action against them.
It’s hard to work out the balance of these positive and negative anecdotes because, “as you might expect, ecologists tend to work in peaceful areas, so most of the wildlife counts haven’t been done in conflict zones,” says Daskin. But he and Pringle found whatever data they could: 253 time-trends, showing changes in the populations of 36 species in 126 protected areas. They then paired these counts with information on human fatalities from organized conflicts.
Protected areas vary a lot, but on average, Daskin and Pringle found that peaceful ones were stable and their animals self-sustaining. Warfare changed everything—and it didn’t really matter how violent the conflicts were. In fact, while the frequency of conflict was the most important of the factors the duo studied, the intensity of conflict was the least important. “It may not matter whether this is a small-scale battle or a large-scale war,” says Daskin. “The onset of conflict disrupts the ability to protect wildlife.”