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Wildlife Decline and Human Conflict

If you have a keen eye on international politics, you may have spotted that the Central African Republic has a new Government.

The new President, Faustin-Archange Touadera, was elected in undisputed elections earlier this year. I say undisputed, but it is almost impossible to find a long time observer of Central African politics who thinks anything other than the elections were rigged, with the eventual winner ultimately being chosen by the President of France (that is a story for another day). Nonetheless, there is a mirage of democracy and the people are putting their hopes in the new President. He is a former maths professor, which is inspiring confidence in some, and is producing the cynical quip from others that “at least he will know exactly how much money he is stealing”.


One genuinely encouraging fact is that Touadera has named both political allies and former rivals to the new government, giving three high-ranking cabinet jobs to his earlier presidential rivals, but wisely leaving out supporters of the Muslim and Christian militias behind the country’s violence two years ago. This is a smart political move, reflecting the clear desire in the country for reconciliation, while putting the troubles of the past three years behind. Even though no-one is expecting miracles, he and his ministers will undoubtedly steal money and exploit this country in the same way so many African leaders do, people are at the very least hoping that this new government might bring relative stability to the Central African Republic.

Stability and Wildlife

What does this new government mean for the country’s wildlife and wild places?

We don’t yet know enough about the Ministers he has appointed, or who they are going to nominate to the key positions (from a wildlife point of view), but if the new government can deliver on its promise and give this country a period of stability, then this will certainly be good news for the wildlife of the CAR.

Stability in human society is important for stability in wild animal populations.

Stability allows for the rule of law to take hold and for controls on natural resource use to be established and enforced. In stable human populations, wildlife populations tend to do better. Where humans clash, where there is war, insecurity, instability and conflict, wildlife populations tend to suffer.

The breakdown of stable human societies leads to declining wildlife populations.

In times of instability, social conventions break down, law and order disappears and in a wild equivalent of the looting that occurs in cities during riots, people take advantage of the lack of restraints and exploit natural resources with wild abandon. Put a group of men, with army uniforms, guns and a dreadful salary, into a situation were there is no law or consequence, alongside abundant, high-value wildlife and, frankly, the script writes itself.

I’ve written about this before on this blog. In West Africa, during Sierra Leone’s civil war, elephant populations crashed. Here in Dzanga-Sangha wildlife populations plummeted during the 2013 crisis. On one day in April 2013, militia troops shot at least 27 elephants in Dzanga Bai. On the Eastern edge of the Congo during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the refugees that fled into the DRC deforested a 300 square kilometre area of the Virunga National Park in a matter of weeks. Similar pattern of declining wild populations can be seen in almost all human conflicts.

Wildlife and Human Conflict

Let’s explore this relationship a little. Specifically, by turning it on its head. Could it be possible that declining wildlife populations themselves could cause, or at least contribute to, the break down of human societies and ultimately lead to conflict, instability and war

Can wildlife decline lead to human conflict?

In order to answer that question, we first need to understand one key fact about the global human population.

Chances are you’ve eaten animal protein today? Statistically, you are likely to be a meat eater, and you’ve probably eaten some in the last 24 hours, very likely in the last week. Or you might be a vegetarian and you have probably consumed some dairy products. (Apologies to any fellow vegans who might feel excluded at this point.)

Think for a moment about where that animal protein came from.

Again, statistically, I’m relatively safe in assuming that it came from a domesticated animal. A chicken, farmed fish, cow, pig or sheep was reared to deliver that animal protein to your dinner plate. You are in the 85% majority of the world’s population.

However, for approximately one billion (1,000,000,000) people on this planet, access to animal protein in this way (from domesticated animals) is simply not an option. They rely completely on wild animal populations, not just for their supply of animal protein, but also on the wild places in which the animals live to collect materials that they use as their primary source of income.

So with 15% of the world’s population dependent on the hunting of wild animals and the collection of resources from wild places, it starts to become apparent why a big change in wildlife populations could cause a big change in human societies.

Wildlife populations are declining across the planet. The number of wild animals has declined by over 50% since 1970. Take away the primary means by which people feed and provide for themselves in this way, and of course you are going to fundamentally affect their society, and their psychology. Desperation increases. Wildlife populations get smaller and smaller, so they need to use more and more effort to extract the same level of resources from the natural environment. They are already working as hard as they can, so to do this they have to exploit others to do it. Exploitation of workers and children increases, so too does the use of slaves (a good example of this are the Burmese and Cambodian men sold into slavery to Thai fishing boats: owned by the boat captain, they live at sea for years at a time working 20 hour days for no pay).

Declining wildlife populations lead to the breakdown of stable human societies.

As the wild resources become more precious, the cost of using violence to control the resource becomes lower. The risks of the consequences of violence become worth the rewards of obtaining the natural resource. If you are accustomed to violence in one area of your life, you are that much more likely to use it in another. This, given the right set of other circumstances and factors, is ultimately what can lead to the society breaking down and human conflict arising.


Now, of course there are many, many more factors that lead to human conflict than simply wildlife decline. I am not claiming that they there is a sole, direct, causal relationship between the two factors. However, I am proposing that they are correlated and connected. The disruption that declining wildlife populations has on human societies, leads to an increase in desperation, exploitation and violence that provides an ideal breeding ground for instability and human conflict.

A real-world example of this can be found by looking at Somalian piracy.

In 1997 when the Somalian Government collapsed, international fishing companies realised that they could enter Somalian waters and harvest fish stocks without any consequence. Fish stocks started to plummet. For the millions of subsistence fisherman living on the coast of Somalia, these declining populations posed an existential threat. They were completely dependent on those fish stocks for their livelihoods and to feed themselves and their families. They started taking AK-47s with them when they went to sea, so that they could ward off international boats and control their fish stocks. Fairly quickly, some of them realised that they could make an awful lot more money by raiding the boats and taking the crews hostage for ransom. Hence the Somalian piracy problem was born.

This is a great example because it illustrates the connection in both directions. Initially, instability in the Somalian society caused the decline in wildlife populations. Then the decline of the wild fish populations caused an increase in desperation, exploitation and ultimately provoked a violent response and a led to a period of instability and human conflict. A destructive spiral, negatively feeding back onto itself.

Interestingly, because of the ongoing insecurity in Somalia, and the inability of anyone to fish on any kind of meaningful scale off the coast of Somalia (including the original subsistence fisherman), we are now seeing an increase in the fish stocks in Somalian waters. It is a bit like the neutral zone between North and South Korea (which is apparently flush with nature due to very low levels of human activity). Instability is not always a bad thing for wildlife populations.

Global Correlations

As a final flourish, let’s take a quick look at the global implications of this connection between human conflict and wildlife decline.

This map shows the 34 internationally agreed “Biodiversity Hotspots”. (Remarkably, three-quarters of the world’s most threatened mammals, birds, and amphibians occur only in these hotspots.) To qualify as a “Biodiversity Hotspot”, there must be 1,500 endemic plant species (0.5% of the estimated 300,000 world total) AND, critically, it must have lost 70% or more of its original vegetative cover. This is important for our argument because it means that these areas, while still rich in species, have lost a large number of the wild plant and animal individuals that they once had (while vertebrate endemism is not a hotspot criterion, in most areas it approaches the high rates observed in the plants).hotspots.jpgIn other words, these 34 hotspots are exactly the kind of ecosystems that have suffered the kind of wildlife population decline we are discussing.

If our argument holds up, we should see some kind of relationship between these hotspot areas (acting as a kind of proxy for wildlife decline) and human conflict.

So let’s take a look what happens if we overlay on top of the biodiversity hotspots, all of the violent human conflicts that have occurred in the last 50 years.hotspotscon.jpegStriking, isn’t it? On this second map a single red dot equates to a violent armed conflict that resulted in more that 1,000 casualties in the last 50 years.

Over 90% of violent armed conflicts in the last 50 years occurred in a country with a biodiversity hotspot.

81% occurred directly within a hotspot itself.

Which way round the relationship is working in these hotspots is open for discussion. The conflicts will likely be contributing to the wildlife declines, but equally the declines will be feeding back and contributing the conflicts.

As mentioned earlier, I do not mean to propose sole, direct causation. However, looking at this data, it feels undeniable that there is, at the very least, a strong connection between wildlife and human society.

Advice for a new President

What does all of this mean for our new President of the Central African Republic, Mr Touadera, and indeed for policy makers across the planet?

Very simply, I believe that the conservation of wildlife should be given the same importance as, and discussed alongside, matters of international security and humanitarian assistance.

Aid and war dominate our discussions on international relations, stability, security and human welfare. We should perhaps pay a little more attention to one of the root causes of these problems: declining wildlife populations.

I would very much like to see the new President (and Governments across the world) appoint Ministers for Wildlife. For them to put in place robust laws and a clear regulatory framework to protect wild places. To hold corrupt officials and reckless companies that destroy natural resources to account.

But even if all of this doesn’t happen, it would be a step forward if we could just recognise more urgently the connection between wildlife and human wellbeing.

If as a country and a society, you invest time, effort and money in protecting wild places and wild animal populations, you not only protect natural heritage for the whole planet and for generations to come, you give your population a sustainable resource which they can use to provide for themselves and their families.

A stable society, is a society that protects its wild spaces, uses its natural resources sustainably and values its natural heritage.

If Mr Touadera is looking to bring stability to the Central African Republic, he could do worse than to use this as a starting point.

Internationally, perhaps if we spent a tiny slice more of the billions of dollars that we spend on waging wars, on humanitarian efforts and conflict resolution, on nature conservation efforts, habitat protection and anti-poaching programmes, we might just help to prevent the problems in the first place.


1. Photo credit for feature image: Brent Stirton, Getty Images.
2. Photo credit for Touadera image: Associated Press.
3. Statistics on dependency on wild animal protein: Wildlife Decline and Social Conflict, Science, Brashares et al. 2014.
4. Map data on conflict distribution: Warfare in Biodiversity Hotspots, Conservation Biology, Hanson et al. 2008.

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Rwanda. Le pay des mille collines. #remarkablerwanda Rainy season sunsets Having an "office job" isn't so bad when occasionally your desk is a speedboat on a Congo river.
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