The evolution of armed conflict in Africa

| 21st November 2017

A Melka Guna villager holds the skull of one of his community’s dead cattle. "Soaring food prices and a crippling drought are currently jeopardizing the lives of 20 million people in the Horn of Africa. Many of the affected people are already living on the margins of survival due to conflict, displacement and chronic poverty."

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For a generation the nature of warfare in Africa has evolved due to technological advances. The scale of destructiveness in modern warfare has increased. This has had a negative impact on wildlife and its habitats, which had traditionally protected wild animals and environments. CURTIS ABRAHAM reports.

Wildlife sanctuaries for critically endangered and threatened large mammal species are threatened by the presence of land mines and bombs.

The changing nature of armed conflict in Africa and its effects on the continent’s biodiversity and ecosystems 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.

In 2009, Conservation International reported 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.

According to Paul Collier, professor of economics and public policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies, 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.

War zones

Almost a generation later, the effects of these armed conflicts of the 90s, mainly internal conflicts among political factions or ethnic groups within countries, have left a deep and lasting scar on Africa’s wildlife and environments.

In 2016, for example, the Republic of South Sudan still had nearly 4.6km2 of areas suspected to contain antipersonnel mines, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor. However, these figures are expected to rise as continued armed conflict between the ruling SPLA and the break-away SPLA-IO (SPLA in Opposition) has led to a renewed proliferation of Explosive Remnants of War (ERW).

The situation 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 rivers, streams and desert areas among other places.

Natural wildlife 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 Land 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.

Wildlife reserves

Prior to South Sudan’s independence, there was profound skepticism from conservationists that any large numbers of wildlife still existed. The prevailing view was 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 Paul Elkan, currently the Director 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 the current civil war between the two SPLA groups has put the country’s biodiversity under threat once again.

“Armed conflicts, if continued, would definitely hamper my future research plans and fieldwork,” says Dr. Marjan, whose risky ground surveys during the early 2000s helped paved the way for the later discover of South Sudan’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.”

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.

Gorilla populations

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 today 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 formerly of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Uganda. “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 Karamoja, 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.

Desperate refugees

Intimately connected with armed conflict on the continent is the issue of refugees. Africa’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 Kahuzi Biega 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 over-harvesting 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.

Sniffer dogs

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 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 Government of South Sudan’s (GOSS) ruling SPLA and the SPLA-IO has paved the way for illegal wildlife trafficking and 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 who was organizing the bushmeat trade using SPLA resources.

Around the same period, approximately 1,418 kilograms of bush meat was confiscated with the aid of sniffer dogs, and thirty suspects were arrested. Operation “Thunderbird” was joint initiative of the South Sudan Wildlife Crime Unit in collaboration with South Sudan National Police Service and INTERPOL.

Park rangers

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 elephant but only 5,000 exist today).

This 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. In the years of the current civil war, this has resulted in several seizures of ivory and arrests.

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 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 Dr. Paul Elkan, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Southern Sudan Country Program.

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.

Bushmeat hunters

The recent murder of Wayne Lotter, a South African conservationist in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is just the latest in a number of high profile murders and attempted murders 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.

Earlier this year, there was also an attempted murder of Kuki Gallmann, the Italian born, Kenyan conservationist and author of “I dreamed of Africa”. Gallmann was shot twice in the stomach by allegedly Pokot herders when patrolling the Laikipia Nature Conservancy in Kenya’s drought-stricken Laikipia region. Herders fleeing severe drought had invaded private land with tens of thousands of livestock.

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. De Merode, a prince in the Belgian monarchy that once ruled the Congo, 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. Miraculously, he made a full recovery.

Several of these attacks appear to have a political dimension. In Gallmann’s case, there were claims that the shooters were part of a militia taking advantage of the chaotic situation in the region. In addition, there were also claims that politicians were encouraging the invasions for their own political ends (the attack took place in the run up to the presidential election). De Merode 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.

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).

Greater destruction

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.

Corneille Ewango, the award-winning Congolese Botanist, experienced this situation during two civil wars in the DRC. At the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR), a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Ituri Forest, northeastern DRC, Ewango headed the Centre de Formation et de Recherche en Conservation Forestiere CEFRECOF/ Wildlife Conservation Society-DRC Herbarium and Botanical Expedition Program at Epulu from 1996 to 2003 and was responsible for its botany program.

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, whose home area was more than 10,000 kilometers away in Bomongo, a small town in Equateur Province, remained.

“This period was the worst because of the escalating violence,” says Ewango. “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.”

Nevertheless, Ewango’s community mobilization efforts consisted of 1,500 local residents together with thirty junior reserve staff who rallied around him and 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 in Kampala, Uganda) and research data on 380,000 tree species but Ewango and colleagues also ensured the survival of the 14 rare okapi, a giraffe-like forest antelope, living at the reserve headquarters' zoo.

This Author

Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer and researcher on African development, science, the environment, biomedical/health and African social/cultural history. He has lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa for over two decades but is originally from Springfield Gardens, Queens, New York.

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