Wildlife populations devastated by war can bounce back under the right conditions

Decades of data reveal how warfare affects African wildlife.

In a new, first-of-its-kind study, researchers Joshua Daskin and Robert Pringle set out to understand how conflict impacts wildlife in African protected areas. Between 1946 and 2010, more than 70 percent of Africa’s parks were affected by conflict, and the frequency of conflict was found to be the most consistent predictor of large-mammal population declines among the variables the researchers included. The Mozambican civil war was a particularly damaging, killing more than 90 percent of Gorongosa National Park’s large mammals. However, in an impressive turn-around, wildlife in Gorongosa have now recovered significantly through anti-poaching patrols, human development programs, and socio-economic assistance.

Now an ecologist at Yale University, Daskin completed the research as a doctoral student working with Pringle at Princeton University. We spoke with him about the research.

ResearchGate: What motivated this study?

Joshua Daskin: We have worked for several years in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Nearly all the park’s large mammals were killed when soldiers moved into the park during the country’s 1977–1992 civil war. Most species have since recovered, such that wildlife populations are now at approximately 80 percent of pre-war levels. We wondered if the impacts of war on wildlife in Gorongosa were emblematic of its effects elsewhere.

No prior effort had synthesized data on war’s impact on large mammal populations, or any other aspect of biodiversity over large spatial and long time scales. But information on the expected net impacts of conflict are necessary to plan conservation actions. For instance, the ability to efficiently target conservation funding (e.g., for new protected areas or for management of existing ones) requires knowledge of the potential effects of future conflicts on biodiversity. We provide estimates of the average impacts of varying levels of conflict on large mammal populations.

The large mammals that we focused on—including elephants, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, buffalo, and many antelope species—are perhaps particularly susceptible to the effects of conflict. By their very nature, they are large and often conspicuous animals that can provide meat for people in need of food during times of conflict. Africa is also the last place that harbors a near-intact assemblage of large-bodied wildlife over large areas. These species play important roles in the maintenance of ecosystem structure, for example through consumption of large volumes of vegetation, and are therefore a priority for many conservation efforts.

A pride of lions relaxes at dusk in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. New research shows that armed conflict is a factor in the continuing decline of Africa’s charismatic large wildlife. Credit: Robert Pringle.

RG: What were your findings?

Daskin: We found that the frequency of armed conflict was a very consistent predictor of large-mammal population declines in African protected areas between 1946 and 2010. Where conflict has been more frequent, wildlife populations have fared worse; indeed, we found no populations increasing in size in high-conflict frequency sites. That said, we found relatively few complete extinctions. This is an important point; although conflict zones tend to have declining wildlife populations, it is not necessarily a total loss. Post-conflict regions may provide great potential for restoration initiatives.

RG: How did you get data from conflict zones?

Daskin: All of the wildlife population data used in this study were sourced from previously published reports. This includes many peer-reviewed research studies, but also government, non-profit, and park-management reports. In total, we scoured almost 500 sources to collect single-time-point estimates of wildlife population sizes, then computed population trajectories for populations where we had estimates from at least two-time points. In many cases, data from conflict zones were collected just before and just after active conflicts. In a few cases, wildlife counts were conducted during conflicts. Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is one place that has had a long history of unrest, but for which there do exist some data collected concurrently with active conflict.

A white rhinoceros in Hluhluwe Game Reserve, South Africa. New research shows that armed conflict has been a factor in the decades-long decline of Africa’s charismatic large wildlife. Rhinos are particularly vulnerable due to continuing illicit demand for their horns. Credit: Joshua Daskin.

RG: What aspects of conflict are particularly detrimental to wildlife?

Daskin: War of course brings with it many socio-economic impacts, including poverty and the movement of refugees and soldiers who may enter protected areas and harvest wildlife or timber from trees that form wildlife habitats. Governments and non-profit organizations responsible for conservation management also may lose the ability or motivation to protect parks during conflicts. Importantly, we didn’t assess the mechanisms responsible for wildlife declines during conflict; we tested what the trend in mammal populations was in peaceful sites versus those with varying levels of conflict. We would need much more detailed data to explain each individual mammal population’s trajectory mechanistically, though.

RG: What can be done to save wildlife populations in conflict areas?

Daskin: Gorongosa provides an excellent example for this. Although over 90 percent of the park’s large mammals were killed during the Mozambican civil war, wildlife have since recovered to approximately 80 percent of pre-war levels. 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. We would love for more parks to be managed in conjunction with human development aid.

Female impala sniff the rainy air in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Gorongosa’s wildlife was devastated by civil war in the 1980s and 90s, but has recovered dramatically over the past decade thanks to a pioneering effort by the Mozambican Government to enlist conservationists, scientists, and local communities in ecological restoration. Credit: Robert Pringle.

RG: What would you like the public to take away from your study?

Daskin: I think our study is an indication—though hardly the only one—of the toll that war takes in conflict zones. This is true for both their human and wildlife inhabitants, and the two are tightly linked. Where conflict is frequent, the large mammals we studied are consistently declining. We should make an effort to restore post-conflict regions, and in many places, it makes sense to do so by integrating human development assistance and ecological restoration.

Featured image courtesy of Robert Pringle.