9. Conservation and Armed Conflict

Warfare – armed conflict between competing entities – has significant impacts on both the human societies involved and biodiversity more generally. While human suffering is quite properly of greatest concern, the ecological aspects of warfare and post-conflict reconstruction are also worthy of greater attention. IUCN is active in many conflict zones, gaining considerable experience in addressing conservation issues under difficult conditions in countries like Nepal, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Armed conflict today is particularly prevalent in areas important for biodiversity. Over 80% of the major armed conflicts in the second half of the 20th century happened in the biodiversity hotspots, areas that contain the entire populations of more than half of all species of plants and more than 42% of all vertebrates. Two-thirds of the world's 34 hotspots experienced warfare during that time (Hanson et al., 2009). Hotspots are also characterized as being under particular threat because poverty in the poor countries where hotspots are mostly found puts great pressure on the resources found in natural environment. War in the hotspots makes conservation even more challenging, as refugees from the fighting often turn to the forests for food and building materials, putting additional pressure on biodiversity.

Wars in important habitats for wildlife have affected numerous countries since 1990. A partial list includes Angola, Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Liberia, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Sri Lanka, the Solomon Islands, and Sudan – quite a depressing catalogue. These typically civil conflicts are often in areas distant from government control where few public services are available to the hundreds of millions of people who live in these remote areas.


Natural resources may be a significant factor in conflicts, especially civil conflict. An analysis of 47 civil wars found that the factor that best predicted civil war was the level of dependence on the export of commodities like timber, minerals or oil, what might be called “lootable” resources (Collier, 2003). These can provide sufficient finance to support an armed movement that will enable the victors to continue harvesting such resources. The conflict often is also related to political and ethnic factions that may already be in conflict over other issues, but the main motivation in at least some cases is the desire to gain the financial benefits of exploiting the resources. As just one example, the timber sold from rebel-held areas of Liberia enabled insurgents to purchase weapons and continue to earn income, perhaps discouraging them from seeking peace because of the benefits they earned by prolonging the fighting.

Box 9.1 Case studies of civil conflict and wildlife

India's Naxalites and tigers

India is facing increasing insurgency problems, especially as disaffected tribes have turned against the government and have been supporting groups such as the Maoist guerrillas known as Naxalites. The Naxalites are a threat to the recovery of tigers in India, as they control vast areas of remote forest in central and eastern India – areas that serve as prime tiger habitat. While they may not be intentionally targeting tigers, they are preventing conservation activities in the regions they control, which may be as much as 30% of India's tiger range. And even if the tiger is not a target, excessive harvesting of tiger prey such as deer and wild pigs, is forcing tigers to prey on domestic animals (or even people) and come into conflict with rural communities.

Philippine rebels promoting conservation

In the Philippines, rebels in Mindanao have threatened to harm loggers unless the government puts a stop to the logging activities that threaten to denude forest cover on the island. In February 2005, a spokesman for the National Democratic Front claimed that the rebels were doing their part in protecting the environment by launching reforestation and education campaigns among the rural people to support the sustainable use of forest products and to minimize the damaging effects of shifting cultivation. They continue to contend that these activities are helping to maintain the wildlife habitat for the numerous endemic birds and mammals of Mindanao, and demonstrate that conservation is a people's issue, not just a government responsibility.

The impacts of conflict on biodiversity include changing distributions of both people and wild species, potential changes to patterns of exploitation and exacerbation of other concerns including poverty (Box 9.1).

Patterns of warfare have long influenced the distribution of species and ecosystems, and of biodiversity more generally. Some large mammals are especially vulnerable during times of conflict. For example, the white rhinoceros was exterminated from Sudan during its civil war (1955–1972), and the 1978–1980 war between Uganda and Tanzania virtually eradicated the black rhinoceros from those countries.

The civil war that began in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996 is tragic for its human costs, which include more than 3.8 million deaths and forcing settled farmers off their land to become roaming poachers or refugees, often settled around or inside national parks. Despite the 2003 Peace Agreement, Virunga National Park is still occupied by armed men who freely poach game for food and for sale. Under such conditions, the Democratic Republic of Congo's bush meat trade is closely linked to the wider informal community. Merode and Cowlishaw (2006) collected information on the sale of protected and unprotected species in urban and rural markets, and the bush meat commodity chains that supplied these markets, under conditions of political instability and armed conflict. During peacetime, meat from protected species from the Garamba National Park (mostly elephants and buffalo) rarely appeared in the rural markets, but they comprised more than half of all bush meat sales in the urban markets.

This pattern reflected differences in the rural and urban commodity chains. Automatic weapons were required to hunt large protected species and were supplied to hunters by the military officers who controlled the urban trade. The use of such weapons was discouraged by the traditional chiefs, who administered the village markets. During wartime, the sales of protected species in the urban markets increased fivefold because the military officers fled the scene, leaving behind an open-access system that led to a massive increase in the exploitation of protected species. In contrast, the rural markets remained relatively stable because of the continued authority of the village chiefs. These findings suggest that, even during times of violent conflict, traditional authorities can play an important role in conservation of biodiversity.

“Patterns of warfare have long influenced the distribution of species and ecosystems, and of biodiversity more generally.”

The continuing series of wars in central Africa is having a profound negative impact on both people and wildlife species such as hippos. In Lake Edward, on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, the hippo population has declined from 9,600 in the 1970s to about 680 in 2005, due to poaching from insurgent militiamen seeking meat. The ecological impact of this decline is profound, as the healthy population of hippos deposited nearly 100 million kilograms per year of nutrients into the lake through their droppings, which fed microscopic phytoplankton, which in turn fed water-borne worms and larvae, which then fed the lake's tilapia fish which were harvested by the several thousand fishermen who lived inside the Virunga National Park. The stress of declining fish is made worse by increasing demand for the tilapia, leading to rapidly increasing numbers of people using finer mesh nets. This means that younger and younger fish are being taken, and recruitment is falling fast, forcing people to turn to wildlife as a source of protein. While this is disastrous for the fishermen and the wildlife, it may not be so bad for Lake Edward, as the tilapia is a non-native species and its depletion may allow endemic native species of fish – many of which remain undocumented – to recover. The more serious problem faces the wildlife of Virunga National Park, which borders on Lake Edward and is threatened by both active conflict and the side effects of the settlement of refugees from the fighting.

One response of wildlife may be to move into less hazardous habitats. History suggests that in many parts of the world, buffer zones between ethnic groups that have been in conflict may be particularly rich in biodiversity, at least partly because these areas are subject to less hunting pressure out of fear of conflict with other ethnic groups. For example, a survey in southern Sudan carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2007 found what is possibly the largest remaining mammal migration in the world with over 1.3 million white-eared kob thriving in the region surrounding the Sudd, the largest freshwater wetland in Africa. The survey also identified an estimated 8,000 elephants, 13,000 reebok, 8,900 buffalo, and nearly 4,000 Nile lechwe (a species found only in that region) in the region. The Sudd has remained underdeveloped because of Sudan's civil war but many development interests have cast covetous eyes on the area, recognizing it as a potential breadbasket for West Asia, as well as China and West Africa.


Post-conflict peace can actually be more of a problem for conservation than the conflict itself. When the combatants cease fighting, areas that once were off limits due to the conflict become prime sites for development, leading to deforestation, poaching of wildlife, and other forms of degradation. While some protected areas have been established, biodiversity may well be suffering more now than during the war (for example, in Angola and Mozambique). In addition, the weapons made available during the conflict are widespread and, judging from historical experience, peace will encourage at least some former combatants to become poachers who are anxious to convert wildlife into meat as a means of survival in times of great uncertainty.

Even more surprising, once war ends, field biologists may make new discoveries. For example when scientists returned to Vietnam's forests following the Indochina conflict, an amazing series of new species was discovered by field biologists from IUCN Member organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society. These discoveries included the Giant Muntjac, by far the largest of the barking deer; the Saola, a forest antelope so distinctive that it was assigned to a new genus; a new genus and species of forest goat known locally as Linh duong; evidence of at least two additional new species of deer; and a pig that was last seen 100 years earlier. IUCN activities in Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Cambodia are contributing to post-conflict conservation.


National security is an issue that will not go away and threats to governments are real, though they may take unexpected forms. One response aiming to pre-empt armed conflict is the establishment of international peace parks and transboundary protected areas with consequent needs for more cooperation with neighbouring countries. For example, Southern Africa has at least four transfrontier protected areas: the Kgalagadi between Botswana and South Africa; the Maloti-Drakensberg, between Lesotho and South Africa; the Great Limpopo, shared by Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe; and the Nyika between Malawi and Zambia. Such areas will pose new challenges and opportunities.

Better understanding of the causes and consequences of conflict and the ecology of war can enable conservation organizations to continue functioning even during times of armed conflict, such as in the recent civil strife in Nepal. For example, some of the protected areas, such as the magnificent Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, were handed over to local communities for management, and local hunting of wild animals for meat was substantially reduced in at least some of the protected areas. Many IUCN projects in Nepal were able to continue during the strife, enabling them to flourish once peace had returned.

Many conflicts take place along border regions that often are remote from the central government. Such areas often are also rich in wildlife. The possibility of developing transboundary protected areas as a means of promoting peace has become increasingly popular. Peace parks are nothing new, serving as a sort of buffer zone between governments that are otherwise in conflict. The Global Transboundary Protected Areas Network has identified 227 transfrontier protected area complexes, involving nearly 3,043 individual protected areas or designated sites covering 4.6 million square kilometres (GTPAN, 2009). Such so-called “peace parks” can establish routine international cooperation, foster regional identities and interests, reduce the likelihood of conflict, expand the area of natural habitats for wildlife, and provide a sense of hope that conservation can help bring peace to both people and nature.

Armies remain a dominant political, social, and economic force in most countries. Modern armies increasingly are recognizing that political, economic, and ecological viability are closely inter-related, and are contributing to conservation in many countries. They control large areas of land as training facilities or military reservations and often patrol remote border areas that are important for biodiversity. One might even argue that many threats to national security have their roots in inappropriate management of natural resources (Klare, 2001), so the military could legitimately be expected to support improved resource conservation. Several IUCN Members are working with the military toward this end.

Governments certainly are well aware of the hazards that conflicts pose to biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in its Article 3, supports the Charter of the United Nations in recognizing the responsibility of States “to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”. This establishes a clear international legal basis for avoiding environmental damage in violent conflicts between governments. The Convention also stresses the value of peace for biodiversity, concluding that, “ultimately, the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity will strengthen friendly relations among States and contribute to peace for humankind”.

But some significant gaps remain in existing international law governing and protecting the environment during armed conflict, both normatively and administratively (not least of which is the issue of how to operationalize normative requirements); new measures are necessary to address these gaps. Systems for liability and compensation for transgressions against the environment and natural resources during armed conflict could include a special international tribunal to investigate claims for environmental damages and case studies on the environmental impact of armed conflict.

So what are the implications of all of this for conservation organizations, including IUCN and its Members? If engaged in conservation in a conflict zone, conservationists should do everything possible to maintain a presence in these zones. This may involve working through local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and avoiding being seen as a tool of the government, but rather as supporters of the legitimate interests of the people who are living in the conflict zone. IUCN experience in Central America, Nepal, India, and parts of Africa shows that insurgent groups will often permit non-governmental organizations to carry out conservation activities that benefit rural communities. In addition, the conservation community should continue to support local conservation agencies to the maximum extent possible. This may involve stepping in after government support has been withdrawn, and helping the local field staff to maintain good relations with the local people whose resource management is fundamental to conservation.

It is essential to seek objective understanding of any historical grievances of the communities living in remote areas where conflict is endemic, and use this understanding to design appropriate forms of support to conservation interests.

Experience over the past 30 years shows that effective management of natural resources can support post-conflict peace building and recovery; conversely, failure to address natural resources or to manage them effectively can undermine peace in post-conflict societies.

So while conflict and its consequences are indisputably a disaster for people, they do not necessarily have to be a disaster for wildlife (McNeely, in press).

To help communities in post-conflict situations, those working in the area of environment, conflict, and peace building should not raise expectations of local communities unrealistically, because the natural resource management in peace-building processes is very long term, slow going, and difficult. Conservationists should also collaborate with humanitarian agencies to encourage resettlement of refugees in suitable areas that will not damage conservation values.

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