When Biologists Get Bombed

Or shot at by soldiers. This isn't textbook conservation science

Elephant-biologist-in-training Joseph P. Dudley didn’t need a message from the department chairman to know that his plans for a master’s degree project had crashed and burned.

War is hardly going to go away, argues a core of conservation biologists. So isn’t it about time to face reality and figure out how to cope with field sites turned into battlefields? National Archives

“It made world news,” he recalls dryly. The year was 1984, and Dudley was in graduate school at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Like most of the newspaper-reading world, he saw war bulletins from Sri Lanka about the Tamil Tigers fighting to expand their territory.

Unlike much of the public, Dudley took the news personally. The Tigers took over the land in which he was scheduled to survey elephants.

Sixteen years later in Missoula, Mont., Dudley tells his missed-elephant story at the annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology as he opens a session entitled “Wildlife and War.” What starts with presentations from a panel sitting at the front of the room turns into an open-mike night for recollections of war-torn science. Audience members volunteer tales of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kuwait . . .

War itself is hardly new, but for field biologists, “I’m not aware that it’s ever been a major focus,” Dudley muses. “In the future, it may become more important.” Roads and settlements are carving wildernesses into smaller and smaller fragments.

Conservation biologists have long documented the impact of oil spills, catastrophic storms, alien species, and other plagues on scraps of habitat. Now, they find themselves examining the destructive boot prints of war.

Potential benefits

One of the first issues that comes up may sound absurd to the casual bystander. “There’s been a great deal of talk about the potential benefits of war,” Dudley says.

Yes, he’s serious.

People tend not to build houses, start farms, or cut timber amidst land mines and sniper patrols. People at war sometimes leave animals in peace.

Paul S. Martin and Christine R. Szuter of the University of Arizona in Tucson, for example, analyzed the diaries of Lewis and Clark’s early 19th-century exploration of the western United States. Along the upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, the explorers found abundant game, including elk, bison, pronghorn, deer, and wolves. That bounty flourished on land between hostile tribes, where hunters ventured at their peril, Martin and Szuter suggested in the February 1999 Conservation Biology.

Further west, along the more populated Columbia River corridor, the explorers failed to catch enough game to feed themselves as they struggled along. The same principle still holds today, says Ke Chung Kim of Pennsylvania State University in State College. He proposed in 1997 that the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea “is a ready-made nature reserve.”

The war bonus of saving animals by scaring away the people doesn’t impress Dudley that much. He’s currently on loan from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to the U.S.-Asia Environmental Partnership of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

A DMZ may give some small creatures peace and quiet—but as a general rule, land mines aren’t recommended in parks for large animals, he says. Moreover, “a DMZ and a battlefield are two different things,” Dudley observes. Colleagues told him that when Tanzanian troops stormed through Uganda in 1979 and 1980 to depose Idi Amin, “they were mortaring elephant herds, machine-gunning elephants. But the worst came later.”

The conflict essentially destroyed the country’s roads. “You couldn’t buy food,” he says. People hunted whatever they could. By the early 1980s, the 20,000 or so elephants in Uganda had dwindled to about 500. As far as war goes, “if it’s a stay of execution, it’s a temporary one,” Dudley intones.

That’s been the case in parts of Africa, agrees Judy Oglethorpe of the Biodiversity Support Program, based in Washington, D.C. Biologists returning to a war-torn land, as she did in Mozambique, may find that hunting by troops or local people has depleted big-animal populations.

When the end of shooting fails to bring immediate order, the free-for-all atmosphere allows poaching, timbering, and mining with no restraint, she reports.

War challenges conservationists, but what they also need to figure out, she says, “is how to prepare for peace.”

Still learning

Botanist Terese Hart comments, “We’re still learning the lessons.” She and her wildlife biologist husband have seen nearly as much war as peace during the 20 years they’ve studied the plants, okapis, and other wonders of the Ituri Forest in what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

There’s a lot at stake. Dodging bullets in the country’s parks are some of the most charismatic of animals: the mountain gorillas in Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega and the world’s last few dozen northern white rhinos in Garamba.

During the early 1990s, the war in Rwanda spilled over the border, and a coup overthrew the government. By 1996, “it was getting very dicey,” Hart recalls. The rest of her family had already returned to the United States, and by November she was preparing to follow. The Congolese researchers and staff packed the 3,000 herbarium specimens—more than 10 years’ work—in trunks and boxes to hide in individual homes. Residents buried important documents.

Rampaging soldiers looted the research center. Still, thanks to the strategic preparations, “we lost very little data, amazingly enough,” Hart says. “The real heroes were the Congolese.”

She says the experience makes her want to upend the traditional approach to African conservation. In the old thinking of nongovernmental organizations, “you do temporary projects,” she explains. “You don’t pay salaries.” When strife convulses a country, these organizations typically try to avoid the fracas and so retreat until the residents simmer down.

That’s the time when help is most needed, Hart protests. “The parks are under incredible pressure,” she says. In Kahuzi-Biega, hungry or otherwise desperate intruders have cut the population of some 350 elephants down to about 3. Out of some 200 gorillas, only about 70 survive. While fighting goes on, she warns Western conservationists, “you can’t think parks are just waiting there.”

Despite war and anarchy, “there are very important things that can be done,” Hart argues. A novel arrangement between some of the park guards and soldiers near the Sudanese border led to a crackdown on guns in local refugee camps. Searchers confiscated some 250 guns, reducing the chances of armed attacks launched from the camps and, incidentally, cutting down on wildlife poaching.

To see what fires the heroics of local conservationists, Andrew J. Plumptre of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York interviewed 78 people from two projects that managed to carry on despite decades of chaos in Rwanda and the Congo. “One of the main lessons,” he says, “is the important role junior staff played.” Western organizations tend to focus attention on senior staff. Plumptre found that soldiers focused on upper-level personnel, too, and many of them had to flee.

Plumptre agrees with Hart’s approach of staying in a country during inhospitable times and taking on expenses normally ignored. “Salary, and the belief it would be paid retrospectively, was an important motivating factor,” Plumptre notes.

However, he emphasizes that local conservationists weren’t just selling their services to the highest bidder. “The belief they were working to protect part of their natural heritage was also important,” he says.

Getting lost

Is South America getting lost in all the uproar over Africa? That’s a question raised by Colombian biologist Liliana M. Dévalos, who studies bats. “Africa is important,” she agrees.

However, she points out, Colombia now offers conservationists a chance to live up to their rhetoric in planning for peace.

A Colombian-government initiative, with foreign aid, is targeting five sections of the country for coca and poppy eradication. Yet “hardly anyone mentions the environment,” Dévalos protests.

She’s been studying economics and policy as part of a fellowship in New York sponsored by Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History. She’s grown concerned that replacing coca as a crop could trigger a new burst of forest clearing.

“Would you pay $100 in New York for a gram of corn?” she asks. Because other crops bring in so much less money than coca does, Dévalos predicts that farmers will try to make up the difference by growing more of the lower-value substitutes.

The switch to a lower-value crop may power a burst of environmentally unfriendly road building, Dévalos warns. “The coca farms are in the middle of nowhere,” she explains, and usually air strips provide the only way in and out. Cocaine commands high-enough prices to justify shipment by air, but bulkier, less-expensive crops will certainly unleash roads.

Fighting drugs clumsily could do as much damage as any other war, Dévalos argues. As she puts it: “The biodiversity of the neotropics is flabbergasting.” Colombia contains part of the Chocé, and Andean forests, 2 of the 25 biodiversity hot spots described by Norman Myers of the University of Oxford in England and his colleagues in the Feb. 24 Nature.

The country outranks all other nations in total bird species, a tally that has jumped by almost 200 since the mid-1980s to reach 1,863, including 70 found nowhere else. In comparison, the United States, with eight times the area, can count about 500.

With so much natural wealth at risk, Dévalos raises the question of whether certain cocagrowing regions just need to be returned to forest instead of converted to other forms of agriculture.

Perhaps roads don’t belong in some parts of the country, she proposes. “The discussion needs to come out into the open,” she says.

Her concerns do not mean she’s soft on drugs. “The drug trade itself is a humongous force for forest destruction,” she emphasizes. Fragile land gets cleared, and processing chemicals sluice directly into streams.

Growing up in a war zone led her to some of the same conclusions reached by foreign biologists visiting Africa. She, too, saw park staffers manage small victories by forming impromptu alliances with guerrillas. During the 1997 El Ni±o, Munchique National Park grew so dry that the fires of settlers clearing land around the park margins raged out of control. A few park employees passed along the word, and FARC guerrillas held a community meeting to announce that the next person who started a fire during the drought would die. The drought dragged on for another month, but the fires stopped.

“Please don’t say that the guerrillas are the saviors of the forests,” she begs. “They’re not. There aren’t any people with white hats here. It’s all mixed.”

More than scenery

The forests and other natural resources are more than just scenery for the conflicts, Dudley emphasizes. He displays two alternative flow charts tracing interactions of civil strife and resources. Both diagrams show that resources dwindle during a war, and this loss worsens the strife.

The strife rages on in Sri Lanka, and 16 years after his first disappointment, Dudley still hasn’t surveyed those elephants. He knows they’re still there, though.

The Tamils and the Singhalese recently declared a temporary truce and allowed an outside medical team to come into the war zone, safe passage guaranteed, to treat the foreleg of a wounded elephant. “They patched him up and turned him loose, and he wandered off into the forest,” Dudley says. Then, the fighting started again.

Conservation in wartime, the scientists say, is turning out to be a lot of just doing the best you can.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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