Impact of armed conflicts on wildlife underestimated: study

  • Over 75 percent of terrestrial mammal and bird species experienced armed conflicts globally within their ranges during 1989–2018, according to a study.
  • The authors of the study call for a re-examination of species conservation assessments with an emphasis on threats from conflict.
  • Attention to conflict resiliency in conservation plans is crucial because conflicts act as threat multipliers for species imperiled by habitat loss, overexploitation and human disturbances.

The impacts of armed conflicts on wildlife globally are underestimated, according to recent research which calls for urgent attention to conflict resiliency in conservation plans for a wide suite of species.

Drawing from a global dataset, the study by Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS-India), Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), and Panthera researchers reveals that currently at least 4291 (78 percent) terrestrial mammal species and 9056 (85 percent) terrestrial bird species experienced armed conflicts within their ranges during 1989–2018.

About one-fifth of these species showed widespread overlap with conflict, meaning that conflicts extended over at least half of their geographic ranges. For around 225 mammal and 390 bird species (615 species), conflicts were widespread and persisted over 15 years or more.

But global species assessments such as the IUCN Red List recognise only 107 species (87 mammals, 20 birds) as threatened by “war, civil unrest and military exercises” as against the 615 species that the study highlights as exposed to both widespread and frequent conflicts.

“In India and globally, studies highlight that areas that have experienced conflict tend to also have a recurrence of conflicts. So, places like the disputed India-Pakistan border, conflict in Jharkhand and ethnopolitical conflict in western Assam, Manas are all places which are vulnerable in the future as well,” study co-author Abishek Harihar told Mongabay-India.

Data on armed conflicts were obtained from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program’s Georeferenced Event Dataset. Spatial data on known geographic ranges of terrestrial mammal and bird species were obtained from the IUCN Red List and BirdLife International and Handbook of the Birds of the World.

Conflicts were more widespread and frequent among species classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as threatened with extinction, the study found. “Most of the world’s mammals and birds are already threatened by habitat loss, overexploitation and human disturbances, and we show that for conflict-affected species these threats occur more often than for species not affected by conflict, highlighting that conflicts act as threat multipliers,” Harihar explained.

In an independent report Conflict and Conservation, the IUCN focuses on armed conflict and nature, underscoring that overall, 70 percent of birds, mammals and amphibians have current ranges that overlap with armed conflict events. Drawing from the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme and IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, it reveals that across all species, the average number of armed conflict events contained in a species range is 2169.

It states that, among other implications, for natural resource governance, conservation and management agencies, conservation must continue even in war-torn regions with the safety of frontline environmental defenders as well as the environment they are defending. Investment in conservation increases the chances of peace and strengthening management of natural resources can contribute towards environmental peace building.

Global patterns of armed conflicts between 1989 and 2018 depicted by the number of years of conflicts. Map from study Harihar et. al.
Global patterns of armed conflicts between 1989 and 2018 depicted by the number of years of conflicts. Map from study Mendiratta et. al.

Developing conflict resiliency

To enhance the recognition of armed conflict as a threat to species, the authors suggest ensuring that future species reassessments (for example under IUCN RedList), explicitly mention “war, civil unrest and military exercises” for the identified species.

“Second, planning for conflict resiliency could encompass several approaches depending on circumstances and focus both within and beyond active conflict zones. For example, captive breeding and reintroduction programs may need to be considered for highly endangered species that experience conflicts throughout their ranges,” added Harihar, affiliated with Nature Conservation Foundation, India and Panthera, New York.

For species whose ranges extend beyond active conflict zones, proactive conservation measures in non-conflict areas could play a role in facilitating post-conflict recovery, he said.

One example is the recurring ethno-political violence that rocked Assam’s Manas National Park (MNP), in the Bhutan-Himalayan foothills, from the late 1980s till 2003 changing the spread and abundance of wildlife, including royal Bengal tigers. But the protected area’s continuity with Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park (RMNP) helped shelter and preserve the overall animal diversity, according to a 2018 study.

Clashes broke out over “space and identity involving Bodos, local Muslims and other ethnic groups” with the demand for a separate state of Bodoland in 1987.

During this period of recurring violence, the population of Indian rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) was poached, prompting a reintroduction program to repopulate the park. The park falls under the Bodoland Territorial Administration Districts (BTAD) that was carved out in western Assam following the resolution of the conflict in 2003 with the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), which provides a certain degree of autonomy to the Bodo people in this area.

“In Manas, the long conflict impacted the tranquility in the forest to a great extent but things turned around well with peace as we have a productive transboundary ecosystem with Royal Manas in Bhutan that helped animals to take refuge and with increasing improvement in habitats and law enforcement,” M Firoz Ahmed, a wildlife biologist at Assam-based NGO Aaranyak and co-author of the 2018 paper told Mongabay-India. The park in its latest assessment has recorded an increase in tiger population from 30 last year to 48 this year (2021).

Political ecologist Anwesha Dutta at the Norway-based Chr. Michelsen Institute, who was not associated with the global research, said that proper planning for risk mitigation is crucial for conflict resiliency. Dutta who has extensively researched in the BTAD in Assam told Mongabay-India: “Every time a conflict breaks out people are temporarily resettled by the state inside reserve forests. Army also goes in. No one has mapped the environmental impacts of the human settlements when the Army bases are operating in Assam forests or northeast India. That is a grey area. You need to plan to build infrastructure for resettled people, among other things.”

“Once you put them inside a Reserve Forest, where technically no one is supposed to be, you are exposing them to risks; you are exposing them to different species so you are increasing the risk of human-wildlife interaction, and there is a vulnerability in living in that environment which leads to resource extraction and they also get involved in the timber trade,” she adds.

Forest department staff and rangers in BTAD. Photo by Anwesha Dutta.
Forest department staff and rangers in BTAD. Photo by Anwesha Dutta.

Direct and indirect impacts of armed conflicts on wildlife

Holding that armed conflicts are associated with and potentially worsen (directly and indirectly) other major conservation threats such as hunting and habitat loss, authors of the global study bat for a greater understanding of direct and indirect threats from armed conflicts in species conservation assessments.

Direct threats are those that arise from the act of war itself, e.g. direct killing of animals and deforestation from explosions, gunfire, etc. Examples include African elephants (Loxodonta africana) being hunted for meat and ivory (potentially to fund terror groups) in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo or Eastern gorillas (Gorilla beringei) being killed inadvertently due to landmines in Rwanda.

“Indirect pathways are those that arise from the effects of conflict, e.g. the weakening of protection or state administration, clearing of wildlife habitats to settle displaced people, etc. Often the short term threats such as the killing of individual animals, clearing of habitat occur during the conflict period, however, these can have long-lasting implications on populations and habitats,” Harihar said.

Armed conflicts also trigger wide-ranging socio-economic and institutional changes that underlie indirect and often non-tactical pathways, such as the weakening of regulatory institutions leading to overexploitation of natural resources.

Dutta says that bringing different stakeholders together (communities, NGOs, local government) and building stronger local institutions (such as strengthening the Village Council Development Committee in BTAD) is necessary for conflict resiliency. In some cases, presence of structured conservation systems such as the Ecological Task Force (ETF) of the Indian Army can potentially mitigate adverse effects of the conservation counter insurgency nexus by working with local communities.

ETF battalions execute specific ecology-related projects, with “military-like work culture and commitment, by enrolling ex-servicemen.” ETF battalions carry out afforestation in difficult and degraded areas in states of Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Assam, Maharashtra, and the Union Territory of  Jammu and Kashmir.

In Assam, the Bodo movement for a separate state saw militants operating from within the forest, leading to the departure of the forest department. Rebels and locals exploited the forest through rampant resource extraction. In response, the ETF was constituted in 2007, explains Dutta in her 2020 paper that builds on the more general literature on the blend of militarisation and conservation or ‘green militarisation’ which refers to the use of military and paramilitary actors in conservation.

Drawing from her interviews with ETF officers and local populations in BTAD, Dutta said: “Even with the ETF’s role in conservation actions in BTAD, counter-insurgency prevails over forest protection and despite their efforts to shield themselves from local politics, incidents associated with local politics does influence its operations – for example, being ambushed by militants during conservation activities.”

A one horned rhino at Manas national park, Assam. Photo by Gitartha.bordoloi/Wikimedia Commons.
A one horned rhino at Manas national park, Assam. Photo by Gitartha.bordoloi/Wikimedia Commons.


Mendiratta, U., Osuri, A. M., Shetty, S. J., & Harihar, A. (2021). Mammal and bird species ranges overlap with armed conflicts and associated conservation threats. Conservation Letters, e12815.

Dutta, A. (2020). Forest becomes frontline: Conservation and counter-insurgency in a space of violent conflict in Assam, Northeast India. Political Geography, 77, 102117.


Banner image: An Asian elephant herd at the Ramganga River, Corbett Tiger Reserve, India. Photo by A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF/Wikimedia Commons.

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