More Than 75% of World’s Terrestrial Bird, Mammal Species Witness Armed
AAthira Perinchery, The Wire
June 6, 2021
The human costs of armed conflicts are well known. Now, a study has found
that in the last three decades, such conflicts have been spread across
habitats used by more than three-quarters of the world’s terrestrial birds
and mammals as well.
This finding echoes another report, by the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), that found that around
70% of all threatened amphibians, birds and mammals, as categorised in the
IUCN Red List, face armed conflict across their ranges.
Species that occurred in areas of armed conflict worldwide also bore the
brunt of several other factors, such as habitat degradation and
over-exploited natural resources, more frequently than other species did.
India’s biodiversity is not exempt from this trend: parts of the country’s
north, east and northeast, which are species-rich, overlap with armed
These findings call for “greater recognition of this threat [armed
conflict] in species conservation assessments and plans” worldwide, say
Armed conflicts – wars, civil strife and unrest, which cause human deaths,
suffering and large-scale displacement – impact biodiversity too, and its
direct consequences are often the most visible. One example is militants’
targeted hunting of large mammals. Militias in central Africa have been
known to kill African elephants and trade their ivory to fund military
In 2011, scientists recorded an uptick in elephant poaching for ivory trade
in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the civil war from 1995 to
2006. In this time, African elephant numbers dipped by nearly 50%.
Another direct impact of war is habitat loss and degradation – but more
difficult to discern are the indirect consequences of civil strife. Armed
conflicts can weaken regulatory mechanisms in place to protect and conserve
species. The socio-economic impact of wars that assail people assail local
wildlife as well.
Not surprising, then, that IUCN – which categories biodiversity according
to the threats they face – recognises war, civil unrest and military
exercises as threats as well. The body also identifies 219 species of
birds, mammals and amphibians in its Red List as being threatened by such
Conflict and Biodiversity
When Sweden’s Uppsala Conflict Data Programme, which has been recording
instances of global armed conflicts since the 1970s, updated its dataset
last year, a team of researchers in India examined the patterns of conflict
and species distributions in more detail.
Specifically, they studied more than 1.5 lakh instances of conflict (that
resulted in at least one human death) worldwide between 1989 and 2018. The
team then mapped these locations with the distribution of terrestrial birds
They found that a staggering 9,056 bird species and 4,291 mammal species
had witnessed armed conflicts. Of these, 615 species had been exposed to
both widespread and frequent conflict.
The populations of more than 85% of birds and mammals listed as being
‘critically endangered’, ‘endangered’ and ‘threatened’ on the Red List and
whose distribution overlapped with armed conflict had also dropped. Over
the last decade, such threatened species have also suffered threats such as
hunting, tree-logging and agricultural activities more than species that
weren’t threatened and didn’t witness armed conflict.
Taken together, these findings suggest “armed conflict is not a singular
threat but instead is associated with a variety of other threats to species
and habitats,” Uttara Mendiratta of the Wildlife Conservation
Society-India, who led the study, told The Wire Science. “Such threats
could often arise due to socioeconomic changes, such as human population
displacement or the disruption of market economies, resulting from the
That the authors take many existing datasets and look for commonalities is
“really cool,” Matthais Baumann, a postdoctoral researcher at the Humboldt
University of Berlin, whose work has explored the impact of war on land
systems worldwide, said. He also hasn’t seen “anything comparable”.
However, he cautioned that this wouldn’t imply there is a causal
relationship between the armed conflict and the observed patterns – nor
that all conflicts in all regions affect biodiversity in the same way.
“What I found really interesting is that they argue that conflict can be a
multiplier of other existing threats, such as hunting, habitat loss, etc.,
meaning that the numbers … could be considered conservative,” Baumann wrote
in an email.
The Indian Picture
Abishek Harihar, another co-author of the study, said many conflicts in
India have been known to affect wildlife and protected areas. Mendiratta
said hotspots of armed conflict in India overlap particularly with
biodiverse areas in parts of its north, east and northeast.
“For instance, conflicts [along] the disputed India-Pakistan border have
affected species such as the endangered markhor, and in Jharkhand, conflict
has impacted protection capacity in the Palamau Tiger Reserve,” Harihar, a
scientist with conservation NGOs Panthera and Nature Conservation
Assam’s Manas National Park was the site of an ethnopolitical conflict from
the late 1980s until 2003 between the Bodo and other communities. According
to a UNESCO report, this World Heritage Site was listed as being “in
danger” from 1992 to 2011 due to the destruction of infrastructure and its
effect on wildlife populations and habitats, according to Harihar.
In this time, the greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis)
became locally extinct, and the population of the swamp deer (Rucervus
duvaucelii) plummeted. But since the conflict ended in 2003,
conservationists have helped bring both species back from the brink,
“Key to this recovery has been the responsive governance by the Bodo
Territorial Council, the park management, local communities and several
non-governmental agencies, which ensured that Manas received conservation
attention immediately following the initiation of peace.”
In its report published three weeks ago, IUCN recognised that even the 219
species (of birds, mammals and amphibians) they identified as facing the
threat of armed conflict is likely to be an underestimate – and that the
current ranges of 70% of all species in these taxa overlap with armed
conflict. This includes India’s greater one-horned rhinoceros.
Similarly, Mendiratta and her colleagues’ findings suggest that threats
from armed conflicts are probably underrepresented in current conservation
assessments. So an important ‘next step’ would be to reassess species –
including those currently listed in non-threatened categories in the Red
List – to better recognise and document threats from armed conflicts, they
said. And according to Mendiratta, a key challenge is to develop
conservation plans to tackle the various direct and indirect threats at
The IUCN report on armed conflict also lists several steps that we need to
“Conservation, sustainable and equitable management of nature play an
important role in preventing conflict and in rebuilding peace,” said
Kristen Walker, chair of the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and
Social Policy, in a press release on April 28. “For example, it supports
livelihoods and the wellbeing of indigenous and local communities in times
of peace, and helps reduce the risk of conflicts breaking out.”
She added that protecting nature is a two-way street and that it wouldn’t
be possible without the support of indigenous and local communities “and
their environmental defenders”.