Wings Over Algeria
Algeria made the news in January and it was war, not wildlife that captured the world’s attention.
A British Petroleum natural gas complex was the target of Islamic militants and over 80 people died in the confrontation. In a country that has earned a reputation for being prime terrorism habitat where 100,000 have fallen in the last 25 years, the Saharan nation’s wetlands and its wildlife are not part of the nation’s image.
But Algeria’s varied and rich habitats should be on the world’s radar. In January a team of local naturalists in Tissemsilt province discovered three new migratory birds, including the white faced duck, crowned diver and the ferruginous duck. All were thought to no longer exist in the Algeria. The ferruginous is a little studied duck whose populations are greatest in Greece and Italy. For it to be a war zone wildlife survivor is a good sign. Its migratory range includes Mali and Chad, other African nations better known for fighting than fauna and flora.
Omar Weld Emarra, a leading natural scientist and conservationist in Algeria, used the migratory duck discovery to claim that the Tissemsilt wetlands represent one of the most important wetland areas in the world. His proclamation was picked up in both the Arab and English speaking press.
Algeria along with Somalia, Sierra Leone and Mali are all considered war zones but lost in the bloodshed is their role among the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Algeria is among Africa’s largest countries and lost in the conflict is the battle to stop desertification. The country has invested a $100 million green wall of trees to protect the fertile north where the ducks were discovered.
Sierra Leone is most known for its blood diamond fueled war, but its exquisite habitats really shine. The West African nation ranks eighth in the world for plant species and boasts 669 bird species. Somalia has 727 different birds including eight endemics, or birds found nowhere else. Sudan is among Africa’s worst war ravaged nations but has 952 avian species.
Conservation efforts both during and after a war are increasingly seen as a way to heal these torn nations.
Survival of the Fittest
The intersection of wildlife and war has been studied by U.S. biologist and author Thor Hanson who found 80 percent of the world’s major armed conflicts have occurred in some of the most biologically diverse places. Of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots, 23 have experienced violence where more than 1,000 people died since the 1950s. War has been disastrous for habitat and its wildlife in many places. Hanson cites the 14 percent loss of Vietnam’s forest cover and the wartime poaching that led to the killing of 95 percent of Congo’s hippopotamus in Virunga National Park in 2006.
“Conservation activities must remain strong during such conflicts to ensure that local people will have the natural resources they need to survive and re-establish healthy communities in the post-war period. An urgent call to protect nature in the midst of violence and loss of human life may seem naïve or misguided. But if you consider where most major armed conflicts take place, wartime conservation is one of the best hopes for wartime recovery,” Hanson wrote for Conservation International, a NGO working in several warring states.
Environmentalists often think of themselves as being apolitical and “above the fray.” However, conservation in the 21st century has become a political exercise putting biologists on the front lines during and after a war.
Oli Brown, an environment affairs officer for the United Nations working to rebuild Sierra Leone notes, “If managed effectively, conservation can play a role in peace building and development in Sierra Leone by strengthening natural resource governance; developing sustainable livelihoods; creating employment opportunities; generating tourist revenue; and promoting dialogue, trust-building and cooperation. However, if poorly managed, conservation can inadvertently cause and exacerbate disputes over natural resources and introduce new or additional economic burdens or risks on local communities.”
Beyond Blood Diamonds
Perhaps no nation has been associated with war’s atrocities as Sierra Leone, after its civil war between 1991-2002 displaced two million people. Its bands of conscripted child soldiers were a shocking new reality. Yet out of those ashes is a nascent environmental movement that is playing a rebuilding role in the country. The government has identified environmental protection as a key rebuilding and peace priority. Two new national parks have been designated as well as four new marine reserves. The country is considering moving communities that encroach on wild lands.
The nation’s first national park, Outamba Kilimi was declared at the height of the war and in 1995 the first chimp sanctuary Tacugama was opened. Since the war ended the government has been active with the UN’s environmental programs and submitted a national biodiversity strategy and action plan in 2003. The country has just four percent of its territory under conservation protection but is striving to meet Africa’s average of 5.9 percent.
The UN’s Oli Brown said the country’s environment faces major challenges including population growth and the expanding gold mining operations adjacent to the Kangari Hills Forest Reserve. He recommends that the country needs to improve management of its parks and must involve the locals in protecting them. Securing long term funding for conservation as well as developing ecotourism is key to repairing both Sierra Leone’s environment and the country.
DMZ as Wildlife Sanctuary
North and South Korea are not known for their wildlife but when the Korean War ended in 1953 a wildlife sanctuary was inadvertently created. The demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel is a well known no-man’s land of razor wire dividing industrialized South Korea from deforested and hungry North Korea. The DMZ has turned into the world’s most heavily protected unofficial nature preserve. Its 400 square miles boast red-crowned cranes, bears, musk deer, lynx and the rare goat-like Amur Goral in growing numbers. Rumors of Siberian tigers prowling this no-man’s land are on the rise. The tiger is thought to be extinct in the Koreas since the 1950s.
The DMZ is testimony to the resilience of nature. When the guns stop and people are removed, nature rebounds on its own. South Korea officials see the DMZ as the road to world peace and have opened the 545 kilometer “DMZ Trek”, a hiking trail near the DMZ to promote tourism. Environmental projects within the DMZ to protect white-napped cranes in the Han River Estuary have built political and cultural bridges between North and South Korea, reports Al Jazeera.
No other country has been as synonymous with war as Afghanistan in the last 30 years. Since 1979 the country has been warring with the Soviet Union, the U.S. and itself. Miraculously wildlife has sustained especially in Nuristan province on the eastern border with Pakistan. These forests have benefited from heavy monsoonal rains and in a 2011 survey, biologists were surprised to find bears, gray wolves, leopard cats, red fox, and abundant population of porcupines. The biggest discovery was palm civets, a small catlike mammal that had never been recorded in the nation.
U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society is working to protect Nuristan’s forests by lessen illegal logging. To save wildlife you must also save the forest’s human inhabitants. “With the forest clear-cut, the people lose the ability to build houses and find firewood in the winter. They lose mushrooms and pine nuts and everything that they depend on for local sale and for food,” Peter Zahler told National Geographic News. Zahler founded the society’s Nuristan project. “The communities understand this and want help with the sustainable management of these forest resources, and we’ve made some inroads in Nuristan to help them manage these resources, on which they are directly dependent.”
If wildlife can survive and rebound in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Algeria there is hope for these war weary countries as well as the less stressed places on our planet.