An elephant grazes in Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park. In 1992, after decades of conflict, animal populations in the park were at 90% of pre-war levels. Photo: Robert Pringle / Princeton University

Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park was once one of the wildest places in Africa, supporting more life per mile than almost anywhere else on the continent. But by 1992, after decades of civil war, the park’s animal populations plummeted by almost 90%. It’s a trend that, according to a paper published today in Nature, is true across many protected areas in Africa: even low levels conflict could cause populations to plummet.

Why it matters: In many places in Africa, protected areas are the last strongholds for biodiversity. 71% of them have experienced at least one year of conflict, and a quarter have experienced at least 9 years. “Wildlife is declining where conflict is common, but the potential for restoration exists,” study author Joshua Daskin, an ecologist at Yale University, tells Axios. But such work is costly and labor intensive.

What they did: The researchers looked at 3,585 protected areas, and cross-referenced them with instances of conflict from 1946-2010. To look at the impacts of war on wildlife, they identified 253 animal populations for which high-quality data existed. Those populations were across 126 protected areas in 19 countries. They also looked for possible confounding factors, like unstable but war-free governments.

What they found: Africa’s protected areas are extremely sensitive to the disturbances that come with war. Even a single conflict over a period of several decades could cause a severe decline. During the same time period, populations remained stable in protected areas without conflict. The researchers looked at other factors that could influence wildlife abundance, like unstable governments, but warfare remained the best predictor of wildlife declines in protected areas.

In a few of the study sites, intense fighting kept people from the region, and wildlife populations grew. But those were the exception rather than the rule:

  • Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research, who was not involved in the study, notes “even if in certain conditions and on a short term there might be [a positive trend] because people are pushed away, ultimately they always come back.”
  • Both Nasi and Daskin give the example of Colombia, where war kept the wilderness relatively safe, and peace brought the return of deforestation.

Why the decline? It’s not that animals are getting caught in the cross-fire, though some might. With war comes instability, poverty and displaced persons. People may move through protected areas, and those who would otherwise eat livestock hunt wild animals to eat. Unstable governments might be unable to protect parks from poaching or stop illegal mining, logging and habitat destruction.

Some things to consider: This study only looked at protected areas, because “we don’t have good data on what’s happening outside of them,” says Daskin. “And what we do know doesn’t look good.” While warfare might be a major contributor to population decline in protected areas, it’s a small part of total conservation across the country: in unprotected regions things like pollution, poaching, logging and mining are constant threats.

Some hope: Although populations often plummeted to near-extinction, Daskin notes that total collapse was rare. That means that, if conservation comes shortly after the fighting ends, biodiversity can rebound. “In the last ten years, there’s been a concerted restoration effort in Gorongosa, with spectacular results,” says Daskin. Animal populations have recovered by roughly 80%.

He says the efforts were successful because they didn’t just focus on stopping poaching or deforestation, they focused on solving some of the socioeconomic instability that came to the region with war. “By creating the economic conditions that allow people to support conservation, you remove the need to poach.”

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