Wildlife decimated by the surge in conflicts in the Sahara and the Sahel

An escalation of conflicts across the Sahara and the Sahel is driving down numbers of the region’s wildlife.

The surge in armed conflicts across the Sahara Desert and the band of dry savanna to its south called the Sahel is devastating the region’s wildlife, according to recent findings published in the journal Conservation Letters.

“As if the harsh, arid landscape isn’t enough, the growth of armed conflict in the Sahara-Sahel region is yet another serious threat that wildlife in this critical region now have to contend with,” biologist Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London, an author of the study, said in a statement.

The rise of groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and Boko Haram over the past few years have destabilized Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Mali. These are some of the least-developed countries on Earth, and they’re adjacent to countries like Libya where power vacuums have recently emerged, contributing to the problem. Across the Sahel and Sahara, the number of conflicts has swelled by 565 percent since 2011, the authors report. That means one in five conflicts on the African continent is taking place in this region, and its disputes account for 5 percent of the global total.

Research published in the journal Nature in early 2018 found that, in general, wildlife numbers decline across the continent as the number of conflicts rises. In this case, the study’s authors wanted to understand what the rapid uptick in violence would mean for this region’s unique and threatened wildlife populations.

“Areas where fauna is seriously endangered due to the rise in conflicts need to be identified, and effective policies need to be implemented in order to reduce the impact of these conflicts on biodiversity,” ecologist José Carlos Brito said in a statement from the University of Granada. Brito is the paper’s lead author, and he works at the University of Porto in Portugal, one of 20 institutions involved in the project.

The team compiled data on the locations of battles, explosions and attacks throughout the region, as well as the paths used by smugglers and people migrating through the Sahara and Sahel. They then compared that information with the results of surveys of 10 species of vertebrates that live in the region. They zeroed in on three species: the addax, or white antelope (Addax nasomaculatus); the dorcas gazelle (Gazella dorcas); and the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana).

Gazelles in Chad. Image courtesy of the University of Granada.

The addax, an antelope that lives primarily in northern Niger, is down to “critically low numbers” in connection with rising conflict and oil exploration in the region over the past 20 years. Shortly after the fall of the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya in 2011, illegal hunters began killing more dorcas gazelles in the predominantly desert country. And the poaching of Mali’s elephants spiked in 2015 in the wake of several years of violence and failed peace processes there.

The scientists figure that 12 of the 14 species of large animal that live in this area have either gone extinct or are perilously close to it because of the region’s conflicts.

The team recommends conservation measures should be included in peace deals, along with penalties for groups and governments that don’t abide by them, to address these issues. They also suggest that curbing the number of weapons that flow into the region could help reduce the loss of wildlife in the Sahel and the Sahara.

“There’s a vicious circle connecting arms trafficking, conflicts, migration and the extinction of animal species,” the authors said in the statement from the University of Granada.

An addax mother and calf. Image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recognizing this cycle, as well as the role that a balance of conservation and economic development must play, should be part of the long-term strategy to tackle this problem, the researchers argue.

And there’s little time to spare: “Such steps need to be taken now, before the unique and iconic biodiversity of the world’s largest desert is lost,” they write in the paper.

Banner image of gazelles in Chad courtesy of the University of Granada.

Citations

Daskin, J. H., & Pringle, R. M. (2018). Warfare and wildlife declines in Africa’s protected areas. Nature.

Brito, J. C., Durant, S. M., Pettorelli, N., Newby, J., Canney, S., Algadafi, W., … & de Smet, K. (2018). Armed conflicts and wildlife decline: Challenges and recommendations for effective conservation policy in the Sahara‐Sahel. Conservation Letters, e12446.

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