The Congo Basin, despite being incredibly rich in biodiversity and mineral resources, has unfortunately been the scene of multiple wars, genocides and massive unrest in recent decades. While conditions continue to be volatile today, the situation was even more perilous during the years spanning 1995-2006, when a society-crushing civil war and genocidal efforts of clashing groups left the country’s institutions decimated, the populations traumatized and the countryside essentially ungovernable.
The loss of human rights, dignity and life was—and still is—devastating. And the degree to which humans have come to dominate global landscapes means that when human populations are in turmoil, the effects often trickle down to other species. Large animals, which tend to require broad amounts of space and substantial quantities of food, and are usually already at risk of decline, tend to suffer the most significantly. In addition to being exposed to zones of conflict and heavy environmental disturbance across their territories, they are often at increased risk from poachers when law and order has run amuck and even well intentioned citizens are desperate for sources of income and food.
Thus, the findings of a study recently published in PLoS ONE are disturbing yet not entirely surprising. A group of researchers set out to determine what effects the human civil unrest had had on elephant populations in the eastern Congo Basin, and whether protected reserves seemed to be effective in shielding wildlife from the negative impacts of armed conflict and institutional collapse.
The study focused on the population of elephants inhabiting the Okapi Faunal Reserve in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo(DRC). This area was overrun with warring factions beginning in 1996, and park guards were displaced by troops in many areas. Hunters and poachers followed, and a brisk trade in ivory and bush meat began to hum within the protected area, despite the fact that it is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site.
One of the major casualties of these activities was the local population of elephants, which is special for multiple reasons. First, the elephants at Okapi Faunal Reserve are forest elephants, Loxodonta cyclotis, a taxa that is distinct (variably classified as either a subspecies or a full species in its own right, depending on who you ask) from the larger and better-known bush elephant, L. africana. In addition, forest elephants are extremely rare, and their remaining populations are fragmented, making them extremely vulnerable to population declines. The eastern region of the DRC is the second-largest tract of continuous rainforest remaining on earth, and as such, it is critical for the preservation of both numbers and genetic diversity for many disappearing species.
The data on elephant population declines were sobering. Within the Okapi Faunal Reserve itself, the number of forest elephants was essentially cut in half: dropping from an estimated 6,429 in 1996 to a mere 3,288 after the war. To take a regional view, 22,000 elephants were thought to inhabit the eastern Congo before the civil war, and there are currently only about 6,000 left. Essentially, the entire regional population is now less than what used to exist within a single reserve.
The Okapi Faunal Reserve actually suffered less of a proportional loss of forest elephants than some other parks, such as Kahuzi Biega National Park—also one of the last strongholds of the eastern lowland gorilla—which by the end of the war was left with less than 20 elephants in the upland areas and no sign of elephants at all in the lowland portions of the park.
In order to analyze the effects of humans on the movement patterns of elephants that did manage to persist at the Okapi Faunal Reserve, the researchers looked at factors such as distances to roads, human settlements, nearest deforested areas, reserve boundaries, and protection bases such as park headquarters.
Patterns of elephant density, and the relationship between elephant density and the environmental factors of interest changed significantly between pre-war and post-war surveys. Human-related factors explained 70 percent more variation in elephant density after the war relative to the data collected before 1996. The strongest predictor, accounting for almost 25 percent of the variation in elephant density, was distance from park headquarters, with elephants showing increased preference for the core areas of the reserve near to park headquarters—areas more likely to be staffed and patrolled by a few remaining park officials during the turmoil of war. In addition, elephant density increased with distance from the park border, a factor that explained 9.9 percent of the variance. This suggests that the central reserve areas, which continued to be staffed despite the raging conflict, did offer at least some degree of protection, when more peripheral parts of the reserve were overrun with poachers, militias, and rebel units, despite being within the “protective” borders of the park. The next best predictor of elephant density was distance from the nearest town, which explained nearly 17 percent of the variation.
In other words, it appears that human activities had an overwhelming effect on the spatial movement patterns of elephants that were able to persist throughout the conflict. These pressures are extremely likely to affect foraging opportunities, group dynamics and reproductive success amongst animals that are constantly restricted to small, remote areas of the park.
Unfortunately, the conservation situation did not immediately improve after the war officially drew to a close. Post-war road building has added additional risks to wildlife, and nightmare-inducing numbers of weapons left over from the war still circulate with lingering rebel and militia groups. Attempts to restore the country’s battered economy have led to increased mining and logging. All of these post-war conditions continue to put substantial pressure on at-risk wildlife populations.
This study, unfortunately, is just one case out of many other untold stories. An analysis by Hanson et al. (2008) determined that 80 percent of major armed conflicts in the last half of the 20th century occurred within biodiversity hotspot regions.
The issue is not a lost cause, however. Both the Hanson et al. 2008 study and the new study by Beyers et al. in PLoS ONE, suggest that even when conditions are at their worst, there is an appreciable benefit to having support from conservation NGOs and other international organizations. Conservation efforts in war-torn regions may at times feel like spraying a lawn hose at forest fire, but it is better than just standing aside to watch the burn.