When Josh Daskin traveled to Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park in 2012, its iconic large animals were returning from the brink of extinction. Gorongosa, among Africa’s most spectacular wildlife preserves until the 1970s, had been devastated by an anti-colonial war of liberation followed by a ghastly 15-year civil war — a one-two punch that exterminated more than 90 percent of the park’s wildlife.
The park’s violent past intrigued Daskin, then a first-year Princeton graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology. As he explored the savannas and grasslands of Gorongosa with his advisor, Robert Pringle, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, they discussed whether similar wildlife declines might have occurred across Africa during the many conflicts of the 20th century. If so, they wondered how severe the impacts had been, and if animals generally retain the capacity to rebound like those in Gorongosa had, or if war was a human pressure that most animals just couldn’t withstand.
After years of examining conflict in Africa’s protected areas, Daskin and Pringle reported in the Jan. 10 issue of the journal Nature that war has been a consistent factor in the decades-long decline of large mammals in Africa. Populations that were stable in peaceful areas needed only a slight increase in conflict frequency to begin a downward spiral. But, the researchers report, while wildlife populations declined in conflict areas, they rarely collapsed to the point where recovery was impossible.
The researchers found that more than 70 percent of Africa’s protected areas were touched by war between 1946 and 2010, an era during which the overthrow of European colonial rule was followed in many countries by violent post-colonial power struggles. Elephants, hippos, giraffes and other large mammals perished as combatants and hungry citizens hunted animals for meat and for marketable commodities such as ivory.
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Image via Joshua Daskin, Yale University