Animals and War

Animals and War

Under pressure

Animals and war may sound like a strange pairing: while we know from Jane Goodall’s research that chimpanzee groups do in fact go to “war” with each other, armed conflict is a distinctly human activity. Yet given our species’ reach on the planet, it’s not surprising that all manner of animals are affected by our raging battles and their aftermath. Recent news hasn’t been good: In the Democratic Republic of Congo, rebels have set up a virtual government inside a national park that’s home to more than 200 mountain gorillas. Now, the guerrillas are running tours to see the gorillas. They’re also warning that if the park rangers charged with protecting the gorillas return, the guerrillas will kill them. Earlier this year, several gorillas were killed in the park, most likely by other rebels who are running a successful charcoal syndicate. The gorillas, and the rangers, got in the way of their business.

This new business poses moral dilemmas on many levels: should tourists pay guerrillas for a service the park rangers are mandated to provide and in doing so, helping support the rebel movement? The funds, though, probably will increase the gorillas’ chances for survival…even as they help fill the rebels’ coffers for more fighting. There’s some good news from near the war zone: Congo, Rwanda and Uganda have agreed to work together, to protect their respective gorilla populations and their habitat. It’s a 10-year plan, costing about $4 million for the first four—a comparatively tiny amount. Sadly, that’s probably not even a patch on the profits from the charcoal trade.

While Kenya’s political crisis drove away most tourists from the country’s array of wildlife reserves, the animals did, according to some accounts, enjoy the respite from human activity—noticeably relaxing. But past conflicts haven’t been so kind to neighboring Tanzania’s animals. A new report suggests that refugees, many of whom have been stuck in Tanzania for years, are hunting and eating wild animals, including chimpanzees, at least in part because the World Food Program (WFP) only provides vegetarian meals. “Bush meat” is in demand. The refugees call it “night time spinach” and it’s illegal.

Another war-related dilemma: should the WFP provide meat to refugees? The agency itself notes the higher costs and the fact that meat spoils more easily than beans or starches. Would meat rations reduce the demand for bush meat or perhaps create other, unanticipated markets for it? Could access to meat be considered a human right? (One animal for another.) Doubtful. What I found most astonishing is this: some of the refugees in Tanzania fled Congo (then Zaire) and Burundi decades ago and are still stranded; others left Rwanda during the genocide. More evidence, if any was needed, of war’s long, broad reach.

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More news from the frontlines about the toll of war on other animals. In a recent article, Newsweek calls endangered species the “new conflict diamonds.” Trade in ivory and wildlife, poached mainly in Africa and shipped mostly to the U.S., China and Japan, is fueling multiple conflicts. The Janjaweed, the government-backed militia that has brought death and destruction to Sudan’s Darfur region for nearly five years now, also runs a lucrative trade in elephant tusks. Hundreds (if not more) elephants in Chad have been killed, processed and exported by the Janjaweed, using their arsenal of horses and high-powered rifles.

Thousands of illegal items made from contraband ivory are for sale on eBay, according to recent reports by wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Not only elephants, but also highly endangered gorillas, tigers, rhinos, macaws and other large birds, and reptiles are being hunted and killed and sold—with the proceeds (practically untraceable) bankrolling civil wars. Tons of ivory has been smuggled in recent years through west Africa in ship-board containers, supposedly carrying another cargo entirely: timber. (There’s another commodity often harvested and exported illegally, with devastating environmental effects.)

Another, different battle front: Asia, where elephants aren’t hunted to sustain wars, but to protect villagers’ crops and livelihoods. As elephant habitats shrink and human populations grow (and tolerance for wildlife declines), this “war” is increasing. A recent Reuters article reports that in Cambodia, the country’s 250 or so remaining elephants and its people are locked in conflict. Non-violent means of repelling the elephants’ penchant for crops may give way to more lethal ones. In India, 200 to 250 people a year are killed by elephants. One way of avoiding further battles: shifting away from crops elephants like to raid to those they don’t.

But this doesn’t always make sense on the ground. Cambodian farmer Siep Nait told Reuters she’s thinking of planting sugarcane instead of aubergines: it sells for more money and has more buyers. But, she laments, in a field that fed several elephants (despite not being designed to do so), “I’m scared that the elephants will come and I’ll get none.” It’s a complex calculus: (dead) elephants as war currency; (live) elephants as a liability to peace. Elephants, and people, under intense pressure. More battles, and more booty, ahead.