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War, What is it Good For?

As long as there is man on earth there will be war or conflict in some shape of form in some area of the planet. Whether it is a war over religion, resources or land war will always end in mass human suffering. However, man is not the only species war may concern, how do the wars of man effect the planets other species? Research shows that the vast majority of armed conflicts occur in areas rich in biodiversity, exposing many species to the hostile conditions of war.

Of course, first and foremost, war is a tragedy for humans. But the environmental destruction it causes should also be seen as a major concern. In Afghanistan, the past three decades of war have led to a 50% loss of the countries forests, habitat for a range of special species like the Himalayan lynx and ibex. Conflict across Central America and illegal narcotics plantations have led to vast deforestation across the region and make it extremely difficult to conduct conservation work safely.

A country that has seen its fair share of violence in recent history is Vietnam. The land and its people, plants and animals seldom saw true peace for much of the twentieth century. With the revolution against the French Empire, WW2, the American war and then fighting off a Chinese invasion in the 1980’s. These wars lead to the destruction of vast areas of forest, more than 850 square miles of forest were destroyed during the second Indochina war. Between 1961 and 1971 US forces dropped an estimated 100,000 tons of herbicides and defoliants on Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia. Such devastating simplification of habitat led to marked declines in species including elephants, Javanese rhinos and many other large mammal species. Traces of toxic Agent Orange can still be found in Vietnam’s wildlife today.

Another equally bio-diverse area of the planet that has seen years of war is the magnificent continent of Africa. After independence was granted to the countries of Africa great civil wars broke out as the local people battled over who would take control. For example in 1977 two years after Mozambique won its independence from Portugal, the country entered a brutal civil war. Much of the fighting took place in the wilds of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, a 1,570-square mile area rife with non-human life. During wartime, soldiers turned their guns on the animals to secure food or ivory to trade for weapons. By the time the peace treaty was signed in 1992, the populations of many of Gorongosa’s large animals had been devastated- slashed by 90% or more.

Unfortunately finance is key to winning a war, weapons win wars and money buys weapons. The sale of valuable wildlife products has funded many of the wars in Africa and this is still going on to this day. 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. Pressure on the populations of these species comes from war refugees, guerrilla fighters and even army personal poaching to attain cash from wildlife goods to attain more and more weapons. During war it seems that wildlife has no allies.

Wars across the world leave many people and their communities in devastating conditions, and unfortunately the same can be said for any wildlife that get in the way. However, for some wildlife war could have paradoxically created a refuge from encroaching human development and hunting pressure. For example in Vietnam some of those bomb-strafed forests have trees that are still so filled with metal fragments that the lumber is too dangerous to harvest, keeping humans away. The same is true when it comes to mine fields. For example some islands in the Falklands are still so full of mines that people do not access areas, however penguins are too light to trigger the mines and so flourish in these areas.

In some cases combat so preoccupies both sides that all resources and effort go into fighting, leaving little money for road building or development, activates that have long-term detrimental effects on habitat, giving these areas some rest bite. War sometimes establishes unexpected havens for animals. Take the case of pirates in Africa, marine life seems to be flourishing in the thriving coral reefs along Somali pirate routes off the coast of Yemen, Djibouti and Somaliland, where the threat of plundering keeps fisherman and other local away. Perhaps the most striking example of this comes from the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas.

Since 1953 the DMZ has been clear of any industrialisation. It acts as a buffer zone between the two rival countries. This area of untouched wilderness has been able to flourish as an unexpected wildlife haven. About 20,000 migratory birds come to use this border area each year, including the largest population of endangered red-crowned cranes. Over 5000 animal and plant species have been identified in the area, including 106 that are labelled as endangered or protected. Asian black bears and Siberian musk deer survive amid the tank traps, land mines and tunnels of the DMZ. IT is even hope to two of the most endangered cat species in the world, the Amur leopard and the Siberian tiger. This no-man’s land between the two countries has turned into an unorganised natural reserve, an unexpected benefit of the conflict. In some cases peace can be more dangerous than war for endangered species.

In fact conservation and human peace may be more intertwined than first imagined. Because civil unrest can often result from competition for natural resources, there is another powerful reason why conservation is important in conflict settings: it can be used to build peace. Historically in India, elephants and large carnivores were protected and encouraged to live in forests bordering different kingdoms as a way of deterring any army considering a sneak attack on fringe villages.

More recently the creation of a wilderness buffer area along the contested Peru/Ecuador border bolstered a 1998 peace accord between the two countries. In Africa, there are plans for similar trans-boundary “peace parks” on the border between Sudan and Uganda, as the two nations emerge from decades of civil unrest. Vast areas of wilderness land could be used as protection areas and encouraged between nations to give them reassurance that the rival nation will not attack through these areas.

Wildlife does not conform to international borders or treaties, and it is for that reason that we must allow animals to travel across borders without facing prosecution. Unfortunetly Europe’s current refugee issue has put pressure on many wildlife species. As if the human suffering caused by the new anti-refugee fences was not enough, casualties are now being reported among animals. Hastily built barriers were put up along national borders that are designed to keep out refugees fleeing from war-torn Syria and elsewhere. These fences also keep out migratory species of animals. Deer are dying in the fences along Croatia’s border with neighbouring Slovenia and Hungary. Lynx often use habitats in both countries and cross borders daily in search of food and mates. Lynx, bears and wolves are facing extinction and fences like these are putting major stress on already declining populations.

Although the aftermath of war- and even the implicit threat- can in some cases aid conservation, war is generally every bit as bad for the environment as it is for people. The zones between conflicts were animals are flourishing is great but we shouldn’t need wars to be able to give wildlife sanctuary, we should be giving large area of habitat for conservation anyway. Animals and their habitats suffer greatly from many conflicts, whether it is to finance the wars, being caught in the cross fire or being pushed out of their natural habitats. There are cases were war has helped species, but in reality there are no good outcomes of war. People suffer as do the animals that share their land. There are often conflicts when it comes to human development and conservation but stopping war benefits both sides, global governments should work hard on creating not only peace between nations but peace between humans and the other species that we share this planet with.

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