Researchers from the University of California Berkeley (UC) reported a surprising finding about animal welfare during war, in a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
The UC team found that the collapse of key institutions is the prime driver of wildlife declines during conflicts – more so than the weapons used during fighting.
The researchers pored over case studies of 144 armed conflicts – from all-out wars to smaller, militia-style uprisings – across the globe and came up with 24 of what they termed "distinct pathways linking armed conflict to wildlife outcomes."
They found that while chemicals, bombs and mines were indeed direct causes of wildlife declines, the most common link between conflict and poor outcomes for animals was the debilitation of key institutional groups.
For example, conflict can force park guards to flee the enforcement areas, the UC team found. When that happens, poachers can more easily take down animals that would otherwise have had a better chance at being protected from harm.
In a similar vein, when researchers and conservationists find it unsafe to visit certain locations, their work and resulting recommendations about wildlife habitats cannot easily be carried out.
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The researchers did find the occasional positive effects of conflict on wildlife, though those tended to be poor outcomes for humans: People fleeing war zones, they noted, created a "refugee effect," in which wildlife was able to thrive where people once lived. The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, they pointed out, allowed wildlife to prosper.
However, the researchers said, conflicts with negative outcomes for wildlife comprised the overwhelming number of cases they studied.
The UC scientists suggest conservationists should do their best to strengthen the groups that manage biodiversity hotspots both during conflicts and before they arise.
"Conservation biologists often assume that war is bad for animals, with little understanding of the context and processes involved," said the study's lead author, UC's Kaitlyn Gaynor, in a statement. "Such simplification overlooks the complexities of both war and conservation. Understanding the pathways that link conflict to environmental outcomes is critical to developing effective mitigation strategies."
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