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Curtis Abraham

The changing nature of armed conflict in Africa and its effects on the continent’s wildlife and their habitats has rendered these natural resources even more vulnerable than in previous times. The main reason, say experts, is the changes that have occurred in the scale, intensity and technologies associated with military conflicts and violent civil strife.

According to Paul Collier, a Professor of Economics and Public Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford and Director of the International Growth Centre, during the 1990s there were more than three times as many ongoing wars than at any given time during the 1950s and about twice as many as at any time during the 1960s. The majority of recent wars have involved internal conflicts among political factions or ethnic groups within countries rather than international military confrontations between different nation states.

Its estimate that over 90% of the major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred within countries containing biodiversity hotspots, and more than 80% took place directly within hotspot areas. Most of these hotspots have suffered repeated episodes of violence.

A generation later, the effects of these armed conflicts of the 90s have left a deep and lasting scar on Africa’s wildlife and environments. In 2016, for example, the Republic of South Sudan (RoSS) still had nearly 4.6kms squared of area suspected to contain antipersonnel mines, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor (down from a total of nearly 98km squared the previous year). However, these figures in what experts call the proliferation of Explosive Remnants of War (ERW), certainly increased when armed conflict resumed around this time period between the ruling SPLA and the break-away SPLA-IO (SPLA In Opposition).

The situation was/is dire in Upper Nile Region, which consists of Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile states. In fact, eight of the ten states in South Sudan have areas suspected to contain cluster munitions remnants, with Central, Eastern, and Western Equatoria remaining the most heavily contaminated. Such cluster munitions remnants have been found in residential areas, farmland, pastures, rivers and streams, on hillsides and in desert areas among other places.

Sanctuaries for critically endangered and threatened large mammal species such as rhinos, elephants and mountain gorillas are threatened by the presence of land mines, bombs, artillery shells, unexploded ordnance, explosive residues and hand grenades within active and former war zones.

But this was not always the case. War zones No-Man’s Lands had once protected biodiversity and environments because they limited human access and settlement within contested territories, what experts call the “war zone/buffer zone” effect.

Part of South Sudan's epic antelope migration

Prior to South Sudan’s independence, for example, there was profound skepticism from conservationists and others that any significant numbers of wildlife still existed. Wildlife experts and others felt that decades of civil war had decimated the country’s wildlife populations through illicit poaching, bush meat and wildlife trafficking.

In 2007, however, Dr. Malik Marjan, a South Sudanese conservation biologist and his colleagues Dr. Paul Elkan of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Southern Sudan Country Program and conservationist Michael Fay, re-discovered a mass migration of more than 1.3 million animals while conducting aerial surveys around the Sudd, one of the world’s largest wetlands.

The migration is composed mainly of white-eared Kob-a type of antelope, Mongalla gazelles and Topi (Tiang), and their annual movement through Southern Sudan is said to rival (if not surpass) the annual wildebeest migration of the Serengeti plains in Tanzania.

But ongoing regional conflicts have put the country’s biodiversity under threat once again. According to recent (March 2023) information from ReliefWeb, the security situation is deteriorating, with increased sub-national violence resulting in civilian casualties, new displacements and a very insecure environment for aid workers. In addition, South Sudan is facing the worst humanitarian crisis since independence due to continued conflict and climate change (currently an estimated 9.4 million, about 76 per cent of South Sudan's population, may need humanitarian aid, including more than 1.2 million children under age five facing acute malnutrition.)

“Armed conflicts, if continued, would definitely hamper my future research plans and fieldwork,” says Malik Marjan, a South Sudanese conservation biologist whose risky ground surveys during the early 2000s helped paved the way for the later discover of his country’s epic antelope migration.

“For starters, poaching would increase and our conservation programs would not be implemented. On top of that, wildlife-based tourism will be affected and this will harm the incomes of local people and the country as a whole. Funding institutions would also be reluctant to support our efforts.”

Malik Marjan fitting a radio collar on an elephant in South Sudan

War and armed conflict had also protected wildlife and environments during the Rwandan civil war during the early to mid-1990s as well as the liberation war in Zimbabwe/ Rhodesia that took place during most of the 1970s. In both instances, the presence of military and guerrilla forces operating in these areas resulted in lower rates of poaching within national parks and wildlife reserves along international borders.

In most instances, however, wildlife and habitats suffer greatly during times of armed conflict. In 1979, Tanzania’s war with neighboring Uganda, which led to the overthrew of Idi Amin’s regime, led to massive declines of elephants and other large mammals (Murchison Falls National Park contains only about 10% of the numbers it used to have during the pre-Amin era).

“The massive decline in animal numbers led to a halt in tourism which by the mid-1970s was quite substantial for Uganda,” says British zoologist Andrew J. Plumptre. “The drastic drop in large mammals also affected the ecology of the savanna parks with large increases in woody vegetation occurring in Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls Park since the late 1970s.”

There were also socio-economic impacts. The loss of large mammal species from parts of Uganda led to the invasion and settlement of many areas by people and the subsequent loss of protected areas and hunting concessions-particularly north of Murchison Falls National Park and in the Karamoja region, northeast Uganda.

But perhaps the African country whose biodiversity has suffered more in times of violent conflict is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In November-December 1996, when the first liberation war in the DRC (Zaire at the time) had ended, Laurent Kabila’s Alliance of Democratic Forces of the Liberation of Congo-Zaïre (ADFL) reportedly slaughtered countless buffalo and antelope herds. On the Butembo to Goma stretch of road, ADFL forces were reportedly selling hippo, antelope and other game meats to travelers to Virunga National Park.

The DRC also experienced high rates of habitat encroachment. Forested areas of Kahuzi Biega Park were burned by the national army to displace rebel forces while Bonobo (“pygmy chimpanzee”) and lowland gorilla populations were victims of intense poaching in conflict zones.

Inextricably linked with armed conflict in Africa is the issue of refugees. The continent’s protected areas, which are the last remaining habitat for many of the continent’s rare and endangered wildlife, are increasingly vulnerable to invasion by refugees during insurgencies and military conflicts. Such displaced human populations are a heavy burden on wildlife and their habitats.

In 1994, the genocide in Rwanda and its consequences had devastating environmental impacts from which the country is still trying to recover. For example, Gishwati Forest in northwestern Rwanda once spanned some 70,000 acres. During the genocide it lost about 90 percent of its cover when thousands of refugees began clearing it mainly for subsistence farming. In addition, an estimated 70 percent of the Akagera National Park, the largest protected wetland in Eastern-Central Africa, was also lost as a result of the genocide.

The civil war also had impact across the border in the DRC. During the genocide, an estimated 3.5 million of Rwanda’s civilian population of 7 million was displaced into camps in the Eastern DRC. Approximately, 860,000 refugees were concentrated in the vicinity of Virunga Park and another 332,000 were encamped at KahuziBiega National Park in eastern DRC.

The environmental consequence was massive deforestation over a two year period of continuous collection of firewood for cooking in eastern DRC, particularly inside Virunga Park. According to José Kalpers’ 2001 report IMPACT DE DIX ANNEES DE CONFLITS ARMES SUR LE MASSIF DES VOLCANS VIRUNGA, this caused serious ecological transformation over vast areas of Virunga (ironically, deforestation and soil erosion, the latter affecting agricultural production, were some of the complex environmental factors that contributed to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda).

Refugee impacts on biodiversity and environments are by no means limited to firewood collection. Slash and burn agriculture and overharvesting of vegetation for fuel, fodder and building materials can result in negative environmental impacts. Likewise, the looting of food crops and livestock theft by desperate refugees can leave local populations destitute with no other alternatives than relying on bushmeat and wild food plants.

Military, paramilitary and rebel forces are also major threats to environments during times of armed conflict. Large mammals such as eland are often an important source of food for isolated armed groups operating within war zones and disputed territories.

Not only does Africa’s wildlife provide sustenance to combatants but wildlife products such as rhino horn and elephant ivory continue to be a valuable source of revenue for rebel organizations and prominent political and military figures.

Conservationists in war-torn South Sudan are experiencing such a situation today. According to WCS officials based in Juba, the continued fighting between the SPLA and the SPLA-IO has paved the way for military personnel to profit from the illegal wildlife trafficking as well as the illicit trade in bush meat.

During the early phase of the conflict, South Sudan’s Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), a non-profit, civil society group, and WCS reported that they had credible intelligence on an SPLA commander based in Gemezia was organizing the bushmeat trade using SPLA resources.

(Around the same period, the South Sudan Wildlife Crime Unit in collaboration with South Sudan National Police Service and INTERPOL carried out an operation codenamed “Thunderbird” in and around Juba searching for illegal wildlife products. Approximately 1,418 kilograms of bush meat was confiscated with the aid of sniffer dogs, and thirty suspects were arrested.)

Conflict-ridden South Sudan has also become a new transit route for ivory trafficking syndicates. Conservationists are worried that the country’s dwindling elephant population will fall prey to rampant poaching. In the 1960s and 70s there were an estimated 80,000 elephants. Only 5,000 exist today.

In 2010, USAID, the GOSS Wildlife Department and WCS launched an initiative aimed securing all the remaining elephant populations of South Sudan. Part of the initiative involved the deployment of GPS/satellite collars on sixty elephants countrywide in order to track their population movements, which aids their conservation efforts. Currently, about thirty-four continue to wear the collars, but several have been killed since the recent armed conflict erupted four years ago.

The growing levels of the criminal ivory trafficking networks that are driving the elephant poaching crisis in South Sudan has prompted the country’s Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism and the Central Equatoria State Wildlife Service to initiate a robust campaign to combat Ivory smuggling in Juba, the country's capital, and other areas. Over recent years, this has resulted in several seizures of ivory and arrests.

“The ongoing armed conflict and political crisis has also hampered efforts by the country’s Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism and WCS to properly monitor the well-being of isolated elephant populations”, says Paul Elkan.

Confiscated bushmeat in South Sudan

Not only are the guns of war turned on wildlife but also on their protectors. Assassinations and attempted assassinations of prominent African and European conservationist as well as the murder of park rangers in Africa is also part of the violence affecting conservation activities on the continent.

In 2017, Wayne Lotter, a co-founder of the PAMS Foundation, a not-for-profit conservation organization in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, joined the list of high-profile murders (or attempted murders) of conservationists over the years. Lotter was co-founder and a director of the Protected Area Management Solutions (PAMS) Foundation, an NGO that provides conservation and anti-poaching support to communities and governments in Africa.

In April 2017(and again in May 2021), there were attempts made on the life of Kuki Gallmann, the Italian-born Kenyan conservationist and author of “I Dreamed of Africa”. Gallmann was shot twice in the stomach by Pokot herders when she was patrolling the Laikipia Nature Conservancy in Kenya’s drought-stricken Laikipia region. In the second shooting incident Gallmann was shot by armed cattle rustlers below the knee while driving on the boundary of the Conservancy

In April 2014, Emmanuel de Merode, Chief Warden of Virunga National Park in eastern DRC, was ambushed on the road from Goma to Rumangabo, Virunga Park headquarters (he was reportedly returning from a meeting with the state prosecutor about British oil firm Soco International’s controversial oil concessions that overlaps Virunga, a UNESCO World Heritage Site). De Merode, a prince in the Belgian monarchy that once ruled this vast country, came under attack by multiple gunmen hiding in dense tropical vegetation. He was hit by a volley of bullets that damaged his lungs and liver and broke his ribs. De Merode was eventually rescued and, miraculously, made a full recovery.

These targeted murders are usually the result of the disruption of illegal natural resource extraction by groups such as rebels, militias, government forces, Islamic militants, prominent politicians and/or their relatives and, increasingly, organized crime syndicates. This list also includes wildlife traffickers, bushmeat hunters and traders, charcoal makers, big game poachers, miners of precious minerals and gems (usually by rebel militias to finance war).

Armed conflict leads to most international and multilateral aid agencies evacuating their staff to safety, which leads to a cessation of conservation activities. Funding also stops during such times. Inevitably, local conservationists and their grassroots organizations as well as junior African personnel are left to continue conservation efforts, often under very dangerous conditions.

The award-winning Congolese naturalist Corneille Ewango experienced this situation during two civil wars during the 1990s in the DRC. At the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR), a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the fabled Ituri Forest in northeastern DRC, Corneille ran the Centre de Formation et de Recherche en Conservation Forestiere CEFRECOF/ Wildlife Conservation Society-DRC Herbarium and Botanical Expedition Program at Epulu village.

When Laurent Kabila’s ADFL forces started their rapid advance in 1996, Mobutu’s demoralized and undisciplined soldiers retreated from east to the west. Not only were their gross human rights violations against innocent Congolese civilians but the country’s biodiversity also suffered in the process (Mai-Mai rebels, for example, are reported to have decimated essentially all of the remaining hippos on the rivers Rutshuru and Rwindi).

When the Second Congo War broke out in August 1998, armed clashes erupted in and around the OWR and poaching activities became rampant, particularly of elephants and primates. In addition, forest destruction accelerated as illegal timber extraction, especially mahogany and other valuable hard woods became widespread.

By 2001, most of the OWR's senior staff had fled but Ewango remained mainly because his home was more than 10,000 kilometers away in Bomongo, a small town in Equateur Province of the DRC,

“This period was the worst because of the escalating violence,” says Corneille. “Daily life was ruled either by the occupying rebel militia or national army. Everything was controlled under military law, which, in most cases, was oppressive if not brutal.”

However, Ewango’s community mobilization efforts (some 1,500 local residents rallied around him) together with thirty junior reserve staff protected the OWR from greater destruction during the worst times of the two wars. Not only did they rescue the reserve's herbarium collection of 4,500 plants (later shipped to Makerere University’s herbarium) and rescued research data on 380,000 tree species but they also ensured the survival of the 14 rare okapi, a giraffe-like forest antelope, living at the reserve headquarters' zoo.


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