A ‘Silent Victim’: How Nature Becomes a Casualty of War

Original publication by Emily Anthes for nytimes.com on 13 April 2022

Research on past conflicts suggests that the war in Ukraine could have a profound environmental impact.

A Ukrainian soldier moving through a forested area near Irpin last month.
Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

The Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, on the southern coast of Ukraine, is a haven for migrating birds. More than 120,000 birds spend the winter flitting about its shores, and a multicolored spectrum of rare species — the white-tailed eagle, red-breasted merganser and black-winged stilt, to name just a few — nest among its protected waters and wetlands.

The reserve is also home to the endangered sandy blind mole rat, the Black Sea bottlenose dolphin, rare flowers, countless mollusks, dozens of species of fish — and, in recent weeks, an invading military.

“Today the territory of the reserve is occupied by the Russian troops,” Oleksandr Krasnolutskyi, a deputy minister of environmental protection and natural resources in Ukraine, said in an email last month. “Currently there is no information on environmental losses.”

But military activity in the area sparked fires large enough to be seen from space, prompting concerns about the destruction of critical bird breeding habitats.

“We see what’s happening in Ukraine,” said Thor Hanson, an independent conservation biologist and expert on how wars affect the environment. “And we are shocked and horrified for the human cost first and foremost, but also what’s happening to the environment there.”

Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, the world’s attention has been focused on the nation’s heavily shelled cities. But Ukraine, in an ecological transition zone, is also home to vibrant wetlands and forests and a large swath of virgin steppe. Russian troops have already entered, or conducted military operations in, more than one-third of the nation’s protected natural areas, Mr. Krasnolutskyi said: “Their ecosystems and species have become vulnerable.”

Reports from the ground, and research on previous armed conflicts, suggest that the ecological impact of the conflict could be profound. Wars destroy habitats, kill wildlife, generate pollution and remake ecosystems entirely, with consequences that ripple through the decades.

“The environment is the silent victim of conflicts,” said Doug Weir, the research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a nonprofit organization based in Britain.

There are exceptions. Wars can make landscapes so dangerous or inhospitable to humans — or create so many barriers to the exploitation of natural resources — that ecosystems have a rare opportunity to recover. It is a paradox that highlights the threat that human activity poses to the natural world in times of war and peace.

“Humans are generally disruptive,” said Robert Pringle, a biologist at Princeton University, “and that includes their conflicts.”

Smoke rose from Odesa, Ukraine, after shelling this month.
Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press
A lynx seen by a trap camera inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine in 2016.
Timothy Mousseau

Scarred Landscapes

Waging war is an act of destruction. And, studies suggest, it’s one that disproportionately affects the planet’s most important ecosystems. From 1950 to 2000, more than 80 percent of the world’s major armed conflicts took place in biodiversity hot spots, areas that are rich in native species but under threat, Dr. Hanson and his colleagues found in a 2009 study.

The take-home message, Dr. Hanson said, “was that if we were concerned about biodiversity and conservation in the world, we need to be worried also about conflict and patterns of conflict.”

There has been little large-scale research on the ecological impact of warfare, but in one 2018 study, scientists found that armed conflict was correlated with declines in wildlife across protected areas of Africa. Wildlife populations tended to be stable in peacetime and decline during war, the researchers found, and the more frequent the conflicts, the steeper the declines.

In some cases, environmental destruction is an explicit military tactic. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed defoliants over wide swaths of jungle to thin out forests and deprive enemy forces of cover. And armed forces often exploit “lootable resources,” such as oil and timber, to fund their war efforts, Dr. Hanson said.

But even when environmental destruction is not deliberate, war can cause deep damage. Soldiers dig trenches, tanks flatten vegetation, bombs scar landscapes and explosives ignite fires. Weapons spew toxic gases and particulates into the air and leak heavy metals into soil and water.

“In many conflict areas, that stuff doesn’t get cleaned up,” Mr. Weir said. “So when we see damage, it’s long-term damage.” In 2011, scientists reported that levels of lead and copper were still elevated in the soil in certain areas around Ypres, a major World War I battlefield in Belgium.

Environmental pollution is an especially acute concern in Ukraine. “You have a high-intensity shooting war in a country with a lot of industrial risks,” Mr. Weir said.

An unexploded mortar round lodged in street asphalt in Bucha, Ukraine, this month.
Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
A helicopter sprayed defoliant over an area of the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War.
CPA Media Pte Ltd., via Alamy

Ukraine is replete with chemical plants and storage facilities, oil depots, coal mines, gas lines and other industrial sites, which could release enormous amounts of pollution if damaged. Some have already been hit.

“This could really be compared to using chemical weapons,” said Oleksii Vasyliuk, a biologist in Vasylkiv, Ukraine, and a co-founder of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group. The Russians “didn’t bring toxic substances here, but they have released ones that were already on the territory of Ukraine into the environment.”

And then there is the nuclear fear. Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors at four power plants; the largest has already been the site of intense fighting. “Military actions near the nuclear power plants can lead to the large-scale radioactive contamination of vast areas not only in Ukraine but also far beyond its borders,” said Mr. Krasnolutskyi, the deputy minister. Damage to nuclear waste storage sites could also produce significant contamination.

Scientists have learned a lot about the long-term effects of radiation on animals and ecosystems from studies conducted in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which has been largely abandoned since the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.

Research at the site revealed that not only did radiation cause deformities in individual animals, it affected entire populations. “We see dramatic declines in abundances and lower diversity of organisms in the more radioactive areas,” said Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina.

The Russian military activity in the Chernobyl exclusion zone may have worsened conditions there, experts said. Fires may have released radioactive particles that had been captured in the local flora, and driving through the most contaminated areas might have kicked up clouds of radioactive dust.

The military activity may have also threatened the recovery that wildlife has made in the exclusion zone. As humans have largely kept their distance, “large species that don’t really have a home nearby in the region have started to come back,” said Bruce Byers, an independent ecological consultant who has led biodiversity assessments of Ukraine for the United States Agency for International Development.

Gray wolves, red foxes, raccoon dogs, lynx and boars all reside in the exclusion zone, as do endangered Przewalski’s horses, which were introduced to the area about two decades ago.

But the Russian takeover of the site created an enormous disturbance, Dr. Mousseau said: “All of this noise and activity likely would have pushed the animals away.”

A man and his dog with destroyed Russian tanks and other debris on a forest road near Dmytrivka, Ukraine, this month.
Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
Saiga antelopes in Ukraine’s Askania-Nova reserve, which has been occupied by Russian forces.
Oleksii Vasyliuk

Ecological Cascades

Still, research suggests that war wreaks much of its ecological havoc less directly. “The long-term environmental impacts of war are more driven by the associated societal upheaval,” said Kaitlyn Gaynor, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Wars often cause economic and food insecurity, driving civilians to rely more on natural resources, such as wild game, to survive. Some armed forces also depend on wild animals to feed their troops, or they harvest valuable animal parts, like elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns, to finance their activities. This increased demand for wildlife is often accompanied by a weakening of environmental protections or enforcement, experts said.

After civil war broke out in Angola in 1975, the country suspended antipoaching patrols. At the same time, the conflict increased access to automatic weapons, said Franciany Braga-Pereira, a biologist at the University of Barcelona who studied the effects of the war. The result was a drastic increase in hunting that reduced the number of buffaloes, antelopes and other target species.

Wartime hunting takes a disproportionate toll on large mammals, many of which play critical roles in shaping their ecosystems.

During Mozambique’s civil war, which lasted from 1977 to 1992, the population densities of nine large herbivores — including elephants, zebras, hippopotamuses and buffaloes — declined by more than 90 percent in Gorongosa National Park.

One downstream effect: A highly invasive shrub spread through the landscape.

Meanwhile, the collapse of carnivore populations — leopards and African wild dogs vanished from the park — prompted behavioral changes in their prey. The shy, forest-dwelling bushbuck, a type of antelope, began spending more time in open plains, where it feasted on new plants, suppressing the growth of native fauna.

Food insecurity and economic instability can threaten even abundant animals. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leading to soaring poverty rates in Russia, the population of moose, wild boars and brown bears declined, according to a study led by Eugenia Bragina, coordinator of scientific capacity development at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Arctic Beringia program.

None of these species were “even close to being vulnerable,” said Dr. Bragina, who grew up in the Soviet Union and remembers that her parents did not receive paychecks for months after it fell. Wild boars, in particular, were plentiful, but between 1991 and 1995, their population plummeted by about 50 percent. “In Russia, we literally ate half of them,” she said. “Half of the population went poof.”

The findings suggest that wildlife could be at risk anywhere that the war in Ukraine creates food insecurity, even outside the areas of active hostility, Dr. Bragina said.

Lino Domingos trained to become a deminer in Huambo, Angola, in 2017. Decades of civil war there finally ended in 2002.
Joao Silva/The New York Times
A bison in the Askania-Nova preserve in Ukraine.
Oleksii Vasyliuk

Mr. Vasyliuk, the Ukrainian biologist, said that he had not personally heard reports of poaching in his nation’s nature preserves but remained concerned about the animalsHerds of herbivores, including endangered saiga antelopes and Przewalski’s horses, roam in the Askania-Nova preserve, which is currently occupied by Russian forces, he said. Many of the animals in the preserve, which also includes a zoo, require supplemental feeding by humans in winter and early spring, he added.

But the government may not be able to safely move funds or supplies into reserves in occupied areas, leaving the animals at risk of starvation, Mr. Vasyliuk said. His conservation group has been raising money for the reserves, including paying local grain farmers to feed the animals in Askania-Nova, he said.

Some of the administrative offices of occupied reserves have been looted, Mr. Vasyliuk said, and many staff members have been evacuated. His organization has been working to provide food, water and medicine to workers in occupied areas and help displaced workers find housing, he said, adding that some members of his own conservation group had become refugees.

War also has opportunity costs as funds and priorities shift from conservation to human survival. “We tend to focus on the kind of direct stuff — the big fires and smoke plumes, damaged oil infrastructure,” Mr. Weir said. “But, actually, it tends to be the collapse of environmental governance which leads to this kind of death of a thousand cuts and then, obviously, has this lasting legacy.”

Refuge and Reconstruction

For all the damage that war can do, in isolated cases, human conflicts can provide a shield for nature.

The most famous example is Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, a thin ribbon of land that serves as a buffer between North and South Korea. It is entirely off limits to humans, protected by guards, fences and land mines. But in the absence of people, it provides refuge for rare flora and fauna, including red-crowned and white-naped cranes, Asian black bears and possibly Siberian tigers. (The mines can pose a danger to the larger land animals.)

In some instances, war can also disrupt extractive industries. During World War II, commercial fishing in the North Sea ceased almost entirely because of the requisitioning of fishing boats, restrictions on their movement and the drafting of fishermen for the war. The populations of many commercially harvested fish species rebounded.

But the gains can be temporary. In the early years of Nicaragua’s civil war, forests along the nation’s Atlantic coast regrew as people fled, abandoning their farms. But as the war wound down, residents returned and deforestation resumed; nearly twice as much land was denuded during that period as had been reforested during the early war, scientists found.

Such findings, experts said, speak to the urgent need to consider conservation immediately after a conflict, when the environment can be at risk as nations seek to rebuild infrastructure and economies.

Soldiers of the Sandinista Popular Army in the Bosawas forest of Nicaragua in 1987.
Scott Wallace/Getty Images
African wild dogs in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. The species was reintroduced to the area in 2018.
Jen Guyton/NPL/Minden Pictures

That is likely to be true in Ukraine, too. “All of this all-encompassing construction that will start after the end of the war will be our sand, our rock, our wood,” Mr. Vasyliuk said, and that activity is likely to take a further toll on the environment. “Our main role will be to ensure, as much as possible, that the restoration of Ukraine doesn’t mean the destruction of its nature.”

Policymakers can use the post-conflict period to strengthen environmental protections and even incorporate conservation into the peacemaking process, turning contested territories into nature reserves. “Environmental degradation in the wake of conflict can cause further harm to already vulnerable people that rely on having healthy environments for their livelihoods and their well-being,” Dr. Gaynor said.

Restoration is possible. In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, an intensive recovery project has been underway since the 2000s. It includes enhanced anti-poaching patrols, the development of a wildlife tourism industry and efforts to improve economic and food security in local communities.

Apex predators, including leopards and wild dogs, have been reintroduced. Large herbivore populations are recovering and “re-establishing control over invasive plant species,” said Dr. Pringle, who was on the advisory board for the project. “Gorongosa is, I’d say, the world’s leading flagship model of ecological resilience in the wake of a devastating conflict,” he said.

Recovery remains incomplete, but the park’s collapse and ongoing restoration shows how human and ecological well-being are intertwined.

“When people are doing well, that’s when you have the greatest opportunities to secure a future for biodiversity,” Dr. Pringle said. “And when people are suffering and struggling, I think that’s when things tend to fall apart.”

Ali Kinsella contributed translation.

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