“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. Less than one‐third of the 34 recognized hotspots escaped significant conflict during this period, and most suffered repeated episodes of violence” – such is the summary of an article entitled ‘Warfare in biodiversity hotspots’ – a rare look at the impact of explosive violence on wildlife.
Despite the threat to biodiversity, the impact of explosive weapons on wildlife is a relatively understudied area. Biodiversity is integral to delicate ecosystems, both locally and globally, and can have reverberating impacts on surrounding human populations. While there is little research on the subject, it is clear that sustained bombing campaigns or even just particular incidents, such as the bombing of oil infrastructure, weapon storage sites or similar industrial infrastructures, can have lasting reverberations on wildlife.
While the impact of landmines and explosive remnants are discussed below, wildlife can also be impacted directly through bombardment. Though animals may be directly killed or injured by the use of explosive weapons, the impact to their environment appears to typically be the more concerning factor, particularly through habitat loss and human displacement.
In Syria, for example, it was recently reported that water buffalo in Hama countryside have been highly impacted by the continued use of explosive violence in the region in recent years. Not only have water buffalo become direct casualties of the bombardment, but much of the land has become unusable, and farmers and their buffalo have been displaced by the shelling. Such consequences have made the breeding and raising of buffalo far more expensive – many farmers have been forced by circumstance to sell their herds. The total number of water buffalo in the area has decreased by two-thirds compared to the pre-conflict level by 2017.
In other instances, bombing has been shown to disrupt the migratory patterns of birds, or even change animal behaviour. In Sri Lanka, for instance, it was reported that, due to the bombardment during the civil war, elephants in the impacted areas started to only come out after dark.
These direct impacts can have lasting consequences. When AOAV carried out research on the reverberating impacts on wildlife from the conflicts in Sri Lanka and Syria, one of the main harms witnessed stemmed from the long-lasting human displacement during these conflicts and post-conflict.
As humans enter new territories or lack resources, they often utilise the space and resources previously used by wildlife in the area. In Syria, displacement has exacerbated deforestation and resulted in contamination of water sources. Biodiversity in Syria has been said to be notably disrupted and some species have been threatened by these impacts. In Sri Lanka, tensions increased as large mammals, particularly elephants, began to come into more contact and conflict with humans. Further post-war development also intensified habitat loss and disruption, increasing the strain on animal populations and exacerbating human-animal conflict; leading to rising deaths for both humans and animals.
While Ukraine’s Donbas region has also seen significant levels of displacement, it was highlighted during AOAV’s research in the region that when people were displaced, nature may step forwards. Some animal species, previously rare, began to recover. However, it wasn’t all good news. Others species were devastated by the impacts, while years of data were lost, and environmental projects were disrupted.
It may also be the case that the benefits certain species have seen may be completely undone as the displaced return post-conflict. Other species in Ukraine, such as some species of snakes, are thought to have been particularly impacted by the increased numbers of forest fires, exacerbated by shelling and other blasts. In 2014, there were at least 3,000 fires, 15 times more than the previous year. Shelling, landmines and other UXO are not just a potential trigger for fires, but also prevent actors stepping in to effectively extinguish the blaze.
Further research that AOAV carried out in Lebanon shone a light on the lasting harm that can occur through damage to infrastructure. The bombardment of a power station in Jiyeh saw 15,000 metric tonnes of heavy fuel oil drain into coasts and soil. This was thought to seriously harm aquatic life with 150 km of coastline affected. The value of the damage amounted to over $850 million. The impact on the marine biodiversity from the oil spill was predicted to have an impact for between 10 to 50 years.
The levels of rubble generated and the number of forest fires were also expected to have enduring consequences on habitats. It is likely there will be similar results from the large-scale damage to infrastructure in Syria, while forest and crop fires in Syria due to heatwaves have also been exacerbated by shelling which has started some of the fires.
Explosive remnants of war
Landmines and other explosive remnants also have a long history of environmental impact. They have directly killed many animals, including for example elephants in Sri Lanka, snow leopards in Afghanistan, tigers in Cambodia, gazelles in Libya, camels in China, and water buffalo Vietnam. While these have been documented in the past, there is little current research on this issue and the scale of the impact.
Explosive remnants can also have unexpected impacts. For example, after the United States’ recent hasty exit from some parts of northern Syria, their forces carried out strikes on weapons storage sites in Syria. It was reported that this was done in order to destroy munitions and other equipment left behind following their withdrawal. In one instance, it was reported that strikes, conducted by two F-15Es, on a Lafarge cement factory used by the US a base in the north-east of Syria, destroyed an ammunition cache. Airstrikes and shelling on weapon depots in Syria has been seen frequently by many parties to the conflict, including Russia, Israel, Turkey, and the US-led coalition. The bombardment of such facilities, however, can have wide ramifications, particularly for the environment. Such impacts were not mentioned in reports of these events, but similar past instances have shown that such bombardment could be of concern.
For instance, when foreign forces bombed weapon stockpiles in Libya, dispersing unexploded ordnance, this had a significant impact not only in providing explosives to local non-state groups but also on the environment. There was also a cross-border environmental impact as the weapons were smuggled to other countries in the Sahel and even more widely across the continent. Soon groups were thought to be using them in poaching in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad and Gabon. In these countries, the unexploded ordnance (UXO) has been known to be used for elephant poaching for ivory, which in turn also funds armed groups.
Landmines and other UXO have often been used in hunting and fishing. Not only does this lead to further harm to wildlife, particularly when used on endangered species, but can also result in human casualties when poachers extract and use those explosives. Such uses of explosives have been reported across many countries and regions, from the countries above to Vietnam and Cambodia.
Of further concern, some poachers have also resorted to the use of landmines in their efforts to stop rangers. In Thailand, illegal loggers use landmines and other UXO to target rangers and to prevent interference in their illegal activities.
It must be noted, however, that in some cases landmines and UXO have also prevented poaching, creating a type of ad hoc nature reserve in mined areas. This was seen along the heavily mined Iraq-Iran border, giving protection to the endangered Persian leopard at the time, and the Korean Demilitarised Zone, for example. AOAV research in Ukraine and Lebanon also monitored how the landmines and conflict-induced displacement, allowed wildlife to flourish in human areas. This should make humans cognisant of the fact that where human-impact is reduced, wildlife may be given the space to thrive.
Indeed, in some areas where landmines have been removed, the threats to wildlife can increase. Around the Okavango watershed, as landmines have been removed, threats such as logging, development and hunting have become an increasing threat to the wildlife and water sources.
It is clear the relationship between explosive weapons and wildlife is complex, and in areas where wildlife recovery can be seen despite explosive remnants, the impact typical human ways of life devastate wildlife becomes increasingly clear.
Beyond the use of UXOs, the use of other homemade explosive devices is increasingly being seen as a method for hunting and ‘pest’ control. In some case there appears to be a link between the areas that use such methods to harm wildlife and experience of conflict.
In Sri Lanka, for instance, where hakka patas (crude bombs or homemade explosive devices) are used to target animals such as elephants and boars, it is the areas North and East, the areas most impacted by the civil war, where these bombs are typically made and used. However, their use has quickly spread to other areas with high elephant populations and there is no definitive link to suggest this is linked to the conflict – experts reached out to by AOAV were typically quick to rule out any link between the use of hakka patas and the civil war. In any case, there are many reasons why those using these weapons may prefer them to guns. Hakka patas are typically constructed using gun powder from firecrackers or sulphur and are thought to be more convenient, effective and less traceable than the use of guns. Their use started in the penultimate year of Sri Lanka’s civil war and has gradually increased since then.
While it is not necessarily elephants that are the targets of such explosives, of the 319 elephant deaths in Sri Lanka in 2018, 64 were killed these devices – 53 from gunshots. In a country home to fewer than 6,000 Sri Lankan elephants, these explosives are having a major impact. When an elephant is injured by these improvised explosive devices, it is almost always fatal.
Though the use of explosives as part of fishing and hunting/pest control is not rare across the globe, the increased use of homemade devices is of great concern, particularly when used against threatened species. There are also considerations surrounding the potential for accidents and human casualties. This has already been seen from blast fishing, and with crude bombs used in pest control.
Whilst AOAV’s research demonstrates some of the impacts to biodiversity and wildlife from the use of explosive weapons, it also is increasingly apparent that there is little data and monitoring of such harm. There are significant knowledge gaps, and where studies have been carried out they are very case specific. The impact on wildlife fluctuates significantly based on region and conflict. Though in some cases we may witness some recovery of wildlife during conflict, often post-conflict pressures see quick development that threatens both human and animal welfare. In such cases, where there is species recovery, more must be done post-conflict to ensure maintaining this is as a priority, alongside sustainable development. Greater efforts are also needed to prevent the harmful impacts to wildlife that have been seen elsewhere.
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