Wildlife in War Zones: The Increasing Phenomenon of Biodiversity’s Battle with Human Conflict

I like to consider myself a “realistic optimist”. I am neither pessimistic nor though am I a optimist to the point of over joyous delusion. I agree with the mantra of hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. From my short while here on earth and my brief examination of how society works and people act, I have come to a personal conclusion, either wrong or right. My personal conclusion is this, that so long as there is man on earth there will be war or conflict in some shape or other in some area of the planet. I am open to change my mind on issues if I find or hear strong evidence which makes a change of mind a sensible approach. One statistic will always stand out in my mind unfortunately though, and that is since the end of World War 2, labelled as the war to end all wars, there has been 160 wars around the world (Kane 1995, Collier 2000). War/conflict like everything else in human society has evolved and is constantly changing, and the reasons it happens is always changing, but I don’t think (being a “realistic optimist”) it will ever disappear for good. I am in no position to begin a discussion on what is justifiable and what is not and this isn’t the place for it. I also admire and applaud peacekeepers and others who work tirelessly to end war and end conflict and I believe the world should be extremely gratefully for these people. As an aspiring conservation scientist I don’t want to see the destruction of anything that has evolved successfully to live on this planet. They have a right to be here by filling a role in their habitats and by always fighting and adapting to be here against the elements, disease, predators and now against us. In this article I wanted to see how wildlife has battled in some wars or conflicts.

So what does war and conflict mean to biodiversity and the unfortunate species that find themselves inhabiting areas where two sets of people, for whatever reason, have decided to designate a battlefield? War in the past was a far more identifiable thing. It generally consisted of one country or collection of countries trying to assert dominance over another country/countries physically for some reason. With this country border zones were usually the areas of major conflict and sites of destruction. Today war can be small scale or large scale and doesn’t necessarily mean an army of a country versus another. Today it more regularly involves terrorist organisations, usually unidentifiable, and attacks can happen anywhere. It appears war has far less restrictions or designations today as it did in the past. In the past the areas known as “no man’s land” during wars could actually have been assumed temporary havens for wildlife as civilian populations moved either voluntary or involuntary elsewhere and there was little human presence (Dudley et al 2002). These “no mans lands” would be just temporary and as soon as a conflict ended people would return and put further pressure on the system. In India, elephants and large carnivores were protected and encouraged to live in forests bordering different kingdoms as a way of deterring any army or militia from considering a sneak attack.

In 1999 researchers examined one of the world’s most controversial border areas, the border between North and South Korea. They found that despite the widespread use of landmines and razor wire in places, the demilitarised zone did create a refugia for some animals and plants (Martin & Szuter 1999). During my time in Nepal I had a discussion with a large cat expert (Jack Kinross from New-Zealand) who at the time in Nepal was trying to re-wild a orphan leopard cub back into a forest in an area which could take more leopard. During this discussion I asked Jack “have we any idea if North Korea could have any Siberian tigers left? If so, how many?”. Jacks short and simple answer was “no one knows mate ’cause no one’s allowed in to find out and it would be extremely interesting to do so”.

One of the most heavily reported on wars since WWII was the Vietnam war. Vietnam was and still is one of the most bio-diverse rich countries on earth due to its biogeographic location in South East Asia. At a glance within Vietnams borders there are roughly 11,400 plant species, 1030 species of moss, 310 species of mammal, 296 species of reptile, 162 species of amphibian and 700 species of freshwater fish (CITIES 2013). These numbers are just rough current indicators and the numbers could be far higher and many species on these records are at threat or have not had sufficient research to make an estimation (i.e. deficient data). During the Vietnam war the US air-force used what was known as “carpet or blanket bombing” over vast tracts of Vietnams tropical forests where they believed militias and communist fighters were hiding and conducting guerrilla warfare. As well as actually bombing the air-force conducted chemical warfare which killed plants and trees and defoiled them of leaves in order to destroy the camouflage of the militias in order for ground troops to locate them quicker. One of the main herbicides/defoliant chemicals used is still famously known as “Agent Orange” which as most people are aware of caused terrible deformations of unborn children. What some people may be unaware of is the company who developed agent orange is Monsanto, the same company who now patents crops and is delivering GM crops into markets (for further detail please read a previous BioWeb.ie article on the EU policy towards GMO’s) The destruction to this country on a humanity scale is already well recorded and is still extremely disturbing and should never be forgotten. What is less well recorded is the damage caused to the biodiversity as above mentioned to this country. Countless species numbers were drastically slashed by this war and a lot of those species have still not recovered to the numbers they were once at before the war and some may never reach that abundance again.

War Plane
The US air force’s impact on Vietnam’s forests and biodiversity may never be properly estimated. (Photo credit National Museum of the USAF photo 061127-F-1234S-017)

Finance is key to any war and usually the party with the most finance becomes the victor, but not always. Simply put weapons win wars and money buys weapons and this has begun to effect wildlife in a drastic way also. Rhino horn at today’s value is the world’s most valuable solid, more valuable than gold, diamonds or cocaine, and ivory isn’t that far behind. For example, over recent years wildlife populations in eastern districts of the Congo such as Garamba National Park and the Okapi wildlife reserve have been under immense pressure for survival. This pressure comes from war refugees, guerrilla fighters and even army personal poaching to attain cash from wildlife goods to attain more and more weapons. Elephants for their ivory in Angola Sudan and Somalia are all suffering from the same problem; it seems that during war wildlife has no resistance and no allies. A conflict that hasn’t even begun yet and hopefully never will is the continuing deterioration of relations between the US and Iran over the latter’s apparent nuclear ambitions. Iran is home to 50 adult Asiatic cheetahs, the global wild population of this species is just 70. Do you think the leaders of either the US or Iran will consider the world’s fastest land animal and it’s right to remain where it has evolved when they are discussing the choices they feel they both must face?

Ivory Funded Warfare
Elephants funding wars in Africa they never wanted through their own destruction for their Ivory. (Photo credit James Morgan WWF-Canon)

The scars of war last an extremely long time after any peace deal or ceasefire has been agreed. The results of war and the scars it caused should never be forgotten but this should never impede forgiveness. One question I ask the reader though is this: if one of the scars of war is the extinction of another species on this planet is it our position to forgive ourselves? As it was Homo sapien vs. Homo sapien how can we forgive ourselves for the loss of a different species through our own aggression against each other? Through conservation and the work of conservation scientists hopefully it’s a question we can still maybe avoid answering.

Asiatic Cheetah
With only 50 Asiatic cheetah remaining in Iran will they be considered in talks to prevent war? (Photo credit Behnam Ghorbani. The original uploader was from Zoochat.com).


Collier, P. 2000. Economic causes of civil conflict and their implications for policy. World Bank, Washington, D.C.
Dudley, Joseph P., et al. “Effects of war and civil strife on wildlife and wildlife habitats.” Conservation Biology 16.2 (2002): 319-329.

Kane, H. 1995. The hour of departure: forces that create refugees and migrants. Paper 125. WorldWatch, Washington, DC
Martin, P. S., and C. R. Szuter. 1999. War zones and game sinks in Lewis and Clark’s west. Conservation Biology 13:36-45.

Plumptre, A. J., T. Hart, A. Vedder, and J. Robinson. 2000. Support for Congolese conservationists. Science 288:617.

“Report on the Review of Vietnam’s Wildlife Trade Policy” (pdf). CITES: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Retrieved 3 April 2013.

About Dr. Cormac Price 15 Articles
Editor, contributor and content curator at BioWeb.ie. Post-doctoral researcher in herpetology at University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Cormac's research focuses on the ecology of urban snakes in Durban specifically the black mamba, Mozambique spitting cobra and southern African python populations, he works in conjunction with Nick Evans of KZN Amphibian and Reptile Conservation on this research. Cormac completed his PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, his PhD research focused on aspects of the ecology of two species of freshwater turtle in KwaZulu-Natal. With a BSc in Zoology from University College Dublin and an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from Trinity College Dublin, Cormac has also previously worked as a Conservation Field Coordinator in the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA), Nepal.

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