From 1977 to 1992 Mozambique’s civil war claimed the lives of an estimated one million people, according to UNICEF.
But humans weren’t the only victims of that 16-year conflict.
Gorongosa National Park served as the headquarters for both the rebel army (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana or RENAMO) and the government army (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique or FRELIMO) at different times throughout the war. By the time the war ended, the park had lost more than 90 percent of all its large mammals.“These were nearly all killed by soldiers, by civilians who needed to eat during the conflict there,” explained Josh Daskin, the lead author of a new study published Jan. 10 in the journal Nature. “We started thinking about whether what happened in Gorongosa might be emblematic of how war impacts wildlife across the continent.”
So Daskin, who is now an ecologist at Yale University, and his adviser at the time, Princeton University ecology professor Robert Pringle, began researching how war has impacted wildlife populations across Africa.
As part of their research, Daskin and Pringle found that from 1946 to 2010, more than 70 percent of Africa’s protected areas experienced a period of armed conflict.
But the real challenge, Daskin explained, was finding comparable estimates of the wildlife populations in those protected areas at different points in time. They went as far back as 1946, pulling population estimates of different herbivore species from peer-reviewed research articles, government reports, park management reports and nonprofit conservation reports.
From there, Daskin said they tried to pinpoint populations where they had at least two time points so they could estimate population size.
The study focused on herbivores, or animals that eat plants, because many wildlife counts are done from airplanes. Daskin explained that the vast majority of available data are for large herbivores simply because it’s much easier to spot “a herd of 500 elephants than it is to see a pride of six lions.”
In all, Daskin said they were able to gather data for 253 animal populations of 36 species in 126 protected areas across 19 countries.
The study revealed that wildlife populations across the continent were impacted by the frequency of war more so than the intensity of various armed conflicts.
Daskin said they can infer from some individual cases, like Gorongosa, for instance, that “the greater impacts of conflict on wildlife are likely due to the wide range of social and political consequences.” Those socioeconomic factors can range anywhere from food insecurity to people fleeing conflict zones.
However, Daskin said there was a silver lining in their research.
In the last 10-15 years, Gorongosa National Park has bounced back to about 80 percent of the wildlife that was present before the civil war. And despite sharp population declines in conflict zones, their research showed very few extinctions.
“So that gives us hope that there’s great potential for restoration in other places like Gorongosa, where conflict has lead to extensive poaching and wildlife declines, but that these species might be hanging on,” Daskin said.
Mozambique, specifically, has worked to provide communities around the park with agricultural and medical aid, as well as, other economic and educational programs, which Daskin said create the conditions needed for conservation to succeed.
Providing socioeconomic and medical aid to communities living near protected areas, Daskin said helps ensure people don’t have to rely on wildlife for food security.