This article is part of AOAV’s examination of the environmental impacts of explosive violence. The full report, The Broken Land: the environmental consequences of explosive weapon use, can be found here.
- Shelling, landmines and other UXO are not just a potential trigger for fires, but also prevent people from stepping in to effectively extinguish the blaze.
- Mountain gazelles, which used to be seen in their hundreds before the conflict are now considered extinct in Syria.
- 70% of trees were thought to have been burnt or cut down in Idlib by 2018, compared to the pre-conflict levels.
- In Ukraine’s Donetsk region, the population of wolves has risen by approximately 50% from pre-war levels.
The natural environment can be impacted in complex and various ways from explosive weapons. In some cases, there can even be benefits to habitats and biodiversity. These benefits, however, are usually short-lived and most consequences are detrimental. In general, there is little research on the impact of explosive weapons on flora and fauna, despite the subsequent harm this may have on humans. The current or lingering presence of explosive weapons can also make it difficult to monitor such impact.
It has been estimated that over 90% of major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred within countries containing biodiversity hotspots. More than 80% took place directly within ‘hotspot’ areas. Such findings from the University of Idaho’s review ‘Warfare in biodiversity hotspots’ provides a rare insight into the impact explosive violence may have on wildlife. Such insight is important. Biodiversity is integral to delicate ecosystems, both locally and globally, and the destruction of this biodiversity – be it through the bombing of oil infrastructure, weapon storage sites or other industrial infrastructures – can have profound reverberating effects.
It was highlighted during AOAV’s research in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that when people were displaced, nature had in many ways stepped into the breach. Some animal species, previously rare, began to proliferate in abandoned places. However, other species were devastated by the conflict; for instance, a colony of Dalmatian pelicans — the only one in Ukraine — was reportedly decimated by explosive violence and over-fishing. Some species of snakes are thought to have been particularly impacted by a spike in 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. In addition to this, years of conservation data was lost during the fighting, and environmental projects were disrupted.
When rewilding has occurred, following the exodus the war has precipitated, it has brought its own problems. A reported rise in wolves has stoked fears, with farmers saying they have taken chickens and puppies and villagers claiming they fear to send their children down to rivers to swim alone. A bigger concern is the increase in wild dogs, with mayors of small towns across the region complaining of feral packs. The department of environment and natural resources in the Donetsk region has secured over 22 million UAH (almost $1 million) to establish 20 sterilisation centres through his region, aiming to stem the rise in wild puppies.
While there is not much data on the impact of explosive weapons on wildlife in Syria, a few examples shed some light. Mountain gazelles, which used to be seen in their hundreds before the conflict are now considered extinct in Syria, an eradication that has been put down to the ongoing conflict. These gazelles have been pushed across the border into the Turkish province of Hatay; there some have received treatment before being released. By late 2019, the number of mountain gazelles in Turkey’s Kirikhan district stood at 670, a 570% rise compared to the pre-conflict levels in the district. The construction of a border wall along the Turkish border which was complete in 2018, now prevents the cross-border movement of the gazelles, and they have disappeared completely, it seems from Syria.
Other animal populations, including the Northern Bald Ibis, an endangered species, have been threatened by the conflict. Such a threat is, in large part, due to a rise in the numbers of displaced people and the impact this increase has had on the ibis’s habitat, along with a spike in illegal hunting. Illegal logging is thought to have increased dramatically across the country following an increased demand for firewood, as well as a consequence of reduced control measures, with armed groups using logging to bolster their incomes. In Idlib, known as the Green Governorate, 70% of trees were thought to have been burnt or cut down by 2018, compared to pre-conflict levels. Displaced communities also rely on logging as an income, which brings in approximately $5 a day. The forests of Idlib used to be home to more than 100 species of trees and shrubs, and more than 50 species of animals and birds. The extent of the impact of mass deforestation upon these species remains unclear.
Forest fires are also thought to have contributed to this loss, with intensive regime bombardment of woodlands having occurred, in an attempt to deny opposition factions the benefits of forest cover. Loss of forest has also been reported in Aleppo and Latakia. The destruction of such trees presents a severe concern in a region where forests are scarce and is likely to contribute to desertification following soil erosion and land degradation. Since the conflict began, Syria has lost at least a quarter of its forests.
The political instability in the country has also contributed to species loss. For example, Turkey’s dam-building, one that can continue owing to a breakdown in the international order in the region, has already severely impacted Syria’s water supply, reducing water flows to Syria by about 40%, and more dams are expected. Turkey started building a new dam in 2019 which will flood over 400km of riverine habitat, further endangering the Euphrates soft-shelled turtle. With the increase in hostilities between Syria and Turkey, it is unlikely Syria will be able to negotiate the water-sharing agreements to prevent further environmental harm.
Other pressures on wildlife may also stem from the proliferation of arms, the presence of UXO and the bombardment of weapon stockpiles. The bombing of stockpiles in Libya, for example, has led to a huge dispersal of weapons that have, in turn, been linked to poaching in other areas of the world, such as Gabon, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.
Animals in urban settings
Human populations and animals often have very interdependent relationships. In conflict, these relationships can be challenged, and the balance upset. When this happens, it can be harmful to both humans and animals.
As explosive violence drives displacement, some areas can become more sparsely populated and, due to the violence, services can become interrupted. Both may contribute to the numbers of urban animal populations. For example, garbage may not be collected creating a ready supply of food. In urban areas, the number of animals considered pests are likely to increase. In many instances, the wildlife outside the city may flourish as well. And as growing animal populations compete for food, some rural animals are forced into populated areas, causing conflict between animals and animals, and animals and humans.
Explosive weapons impact pets too and this can have a considerable impact on their owners, who are often forced into putting their pets down or abandoning them in times of need. For instance, the so-called ‘British Pet Massacre’ happened in 1939 in the United Kingdom when over 750,000 pets were killed in preparation for food shortages during World War II. The emotional and psychological impact of such actions can be profound on owners and while such actions may seem logical at the time, the long-term loss of a cat or a dog to an owner may also add to the psychological stresses that war already brings.
One recent study, ‘Effect of Pets on Human Behaviour and Stress in Disaster’, examined the impact of pets on people living with PTSD after an earthquake; the results were thought to be relevant to disaster victims in general. The study found that the PTSD scores of pet-owners were higher than those of non-pet owners immediately after a disaster but were significantly lower in the years following the disaster. The initial PTSD scores were linked to the possibility that pet-owners were less likely to evacuate if pets were not included in evacuation measures. Other studies have found that pets contribute to human resilience following a disaster, particularly for the vulnerable. If pets aren’t incorporated into evacuations or other security measures, people are more likely to take risks to remain with or to protect their pets. If animals are lost in a disaster, psychological and physical recovery can be slower and could increase psychological trauma.
Abandoned pets in areas experiencing high levels of explosive violence may also impact the local environment, such as increasing the likelihood of diseases or impacting indigenous flora and fauna in unexpected ways.
The Donbas region was the most populated in Ukraine, outside Kyiv, before the conflict and some wildlife in the region has flourished following it, as civilians move out of areas and hunting decreases due to a ban. For example, the numbers of pheasants and hares in the region have increased, which has also contributed to a rise in foxes and wolves. In Donetsk, the population of wolves has risen by approximately 50% since prior to the war, with a population now standing at 300. Foxes are estimated to have increased by as much as four-fold in eastern Ukraine. Alongside this, there has also been a rise in rabies in the human population, especially in Donetsk (foxes are thought to be responsible for almost a third of rabies cases in Ukraine).
Today, wolves, jackals and foxes are reported to be endemic, roaming the streets, hunting for unguarded pets or livestock. Though many animals tend to migrate from those regions worst impacted regions by explosive violence, intimidated by the noise and chaos of war, the conflict has also accustomed some animals to sound and human activity, making them bolder in their incursions into urban areas.
Other invasive species, such as the jackal, sunfish and the Asian lady beetle have also expanded and colonised the conflict zones – even impacting adjacent areas. Other species have demonstrated abnormal behaviours, including aggression; one incidence reported to AOAV was of a snake attacking a woman in a city centre, though it did not bite her.[i] Many animals have been forced from their natural habitats, due to shelling or mining, as well those seeking food and establishing new territories – all of which brings them into increasing contact with humans.
Dogs, a popular pet in Donbas, now roam the streets, and the population of street dogs has soared. In one animal shelter, the number of stray dogs rose to some 800 during 2016 alone. Some of these bear the wounds of war, with shrapnel and other injuries, causing them to be aggressive and fearful of men, in particular, who they associate with soldiers.
Prior to the conflict, Ukraine already had high levels of animal cruelty, but there had been steps towards better animal welfare. This, however, was stifled by the onset of the conflict in Donbas. Kateryna Havrish, who runs an animal shelter in Stakhanov, explained to AOAV that, in Stakhanov, a city in Luhansk Oblast, the situation for animals had been beginning to improve before the conflict, with most neutered and vaccinated against rabies, but the situation quickly changed: “There were lines in vet clinics to put unwanted animals to sleep. When the shelling began, people fled, leaving dogs and cats closed in apartments without water and food.”[ii]
Most of those euthanised occurred just before the conflict but once active hostilities began it was far more common for people to just abandon their animals. Furthermore, as people fled and military presence increased, dog shelters were targeted by soldiers where they abused and killed the animals. Havrish claimed this occurred in Luhansk and Almaznaya, and that in Almaznaya the owner was reportedly tortured and the animals eaten. That shelter later closed. In addition, Larisa Tsybulnik, who cares for dogs left behind in Maryinka, and runs an animal shelter in the town, estimated that about half of the dogs had died in the town by early 2017. Havrish reported to AOAV that while some suffered directly from the impact of the shelling, others died from fear-induced heart attacks or shock.
There are also stories of people who did not flee the encroaching explosive threat so that they could remain with their animals. These families hid with their animals in the basements during bombing and many took on additional animals that had been abandoned. Others were said to have died in bombardments trying to rescue and protect animals from the shelling.[iii]
The harm to animals in Donbas has had impacts reaching far beyond the territory. In one shelter in Kyiv, which holds over 1,300 animals, it is estimated that about 15% have come all the way from the frontlines in Donetsk, over 600km away. Havrish, who now lives in Kyiv, continues to volunteer at an animal shelter and supports her own in Stakhanov. Her hope for the animals in Donbas is to bring them to Kyiv and then seek adoption for them abroad in countries with working laws on animal welfare.
When AOAV met Marina Shazhko from the Bakhmut Community for Animal Protection – or LADA – she explained that it is hard to get animals placed with a family, especially mongrels. She continues to run the shelter for over 100 dogs on a shoestring budget. Shelters, both in Kyiv and Donbas are often under threat from armed men, in a country where weapons have proliferated in the violence.
In Syria, many have heard about the Cat Man of Aleppo, who has risked his own life to rescue and care for pets left behind in Aleppo and Idlib. With the help of donations and assistance, Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel has set up a sanctuary in rural Aleppo, with 200 cats in residence. His previous sanctuary in Aleppo city, where he cared for 170 cats and a dog, was bombed, shortly before eastern Aleppo was captured by government forces in December 2016. Alaa fled to western Aleppo with the 22 cats that remained. Then, following the bombardment of Idlib in 2019, Alaa managed to rescue about 80 stray cats from Kafrnabel, 40 from Maaret al-Nouman and more than 100 from Khan Sheikhoun.
Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Syrian Cats is a refuge: it has seen ‘too many animals to count’ hurt by explosive violence, with many left with shrapnel wounds.[iv] When AOAV spoke to Alessandra Abidin, co-founder of the sanctuary, she highlighted that Ernesto’s had just treated a horse injured by shelling. Smaller animals, she said, are often left with crush injuries after being trapped under rubble. ‘They become nervous and agitated whenever the planes fly over’, she said. ‘Now, planes in the sky are a regular occurrence. They remain on edge. We have had cases of cats dying from shock and fear – not just from bomb injuries.’
Like humans, the consequences for animals from the use of explosive weapons are complex and lasting. As Alessandra told AOAV: ‘animals are a forgotten statistic in this war. So many are abandoned, so many are left behind when people flee from the advancing war.’
Wildlife, pets and other urban wildlife appear resilient. However, the interdependent nature of many human-animal relationships often leaves both animals and people vulnerable when explosive violence breaks down their bonds. When displaced, civilians are often unable to find shelter if they have an animal with them. Non-domesticated animals may also see population increases when towns are partly abandoned, placing both humans and themselves at risk.
Evidence also points to the devastating impact explosive violence
can have on wildlife, particularly from fires caused by bombardment, and the
resultant tree and habitat loss. Whilst the long-term impact of explosive
violence on flora and fauna needs more research, especially in areas such as
war-induced desertification or flooding, it is clear that the reverberating
impact of explosive weapons on natural ecosystems and wild and domestic animals
is profound and under-discussed.
[i] Email from Kateryna Havrish, Formerly ran an animal sanctuary in Donbas and continues to help rescue and rehome Donbas’ animals, 04 Sep 2019.
[ii] Email from Kateryna Havrish, Formerly ran an animal sanctuary in Donbas and continues to help rescue and rehome Donbas’ animals, 04 Sep 2019.
[iii] Email from Kateryna Havrish, Formerly ran an animal sanctuary in Donbas and continues to help rescue and rehome Donbas’ animals, 04 Sep 2019.
[iv] Email from Alessandra Abidin, Co-founder, Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Syrian Cats, 01 Sep 2019.
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