Civil conflict and conservation

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A few of my friends and I started a debate on the impact of war on biodiversity conservation over lunch one afternoon. On the one hand, we argued, civil conflict can improve the state of biodiversity. One such example is the demilitarisation zone between North and South Korea, which is considered one of the most well-preserved involuntary conservation areas in the world. On the other hand, however, conflict can cripple conservation attempts: Saddam Hussein’s draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq for strategic purposes during the Gulf War is a typical case in point. Since we are all aspiring scientists, we wondered whether we could aggregate all the known cases where biodiversity was influenced by any form of civil conflict to (a) recognize some general trends and (b) identify the complex socio-ecological dynamics of various forms of civil strife.

Our lunchtime musings happened more than a year ago and, needless to say, our little side-project hit a brick wall pretty quickly. The major shortcoming was the lack of quantitative data on biodiversity-war interactions, which meant that any statistical meta-analysis would be fruitless. Not to mention the continuous demotion of this side-project down the list of priorities as other obligations took precedence. Nevertheless, I did manage to compile a decent list of interesting papers and I still think that there might be some interesting patterns that could arise from deeper analyses.

In short, I want to use this post to share my limited progress. If anyone reading this would like to take the reins and try to discover some novel findings, here are some tools you might find useful:

  1. This is a list of relevant scientific papers. It is an open Google spreadsheet, so feel free to add any new and appropriate studies that I may have missed. While I have most of the papers in PDF format, I can’t upload them all (copyright rules); let me know if you can’t get access to a subscription paper and I’ll send it to you.
  2. Here is my brief attempt to summarise the main messages of the few papers I had read for the meta-analysis. It’s not great, but it might save you some time.
  3. Here is a database on all Civil Conflict events in Africa between 1990 and 2011. All the conflicts are also georeferenced, so spatial analyses are an option. It might possible to create a grid and overlap species ranges (from the IUCN Red List spatial data) to calculate the spatially-explicit Red List Index (RLI). The change in the RLI at a location over the same periods as the civil conflict could be a way to identify correlations between conservation trends and civil conflict (although it won’t necessarily imply causation, it might be a start).


(Here is a simple graphic depiction of the conflict data. Click to see full size)


In summary, if you like the idea and want to run with it: go ahead, use whatever you find helpful. Alternatively, I think it will be awesome if the readers of this blog all tackle this project together. I’m eager to hear any ideas on possible ways to crowd-source some elegant – and testable – hypotheses. I can also imagine ways to share the burden of a large-scale literature review to ensure that a standardised screening of all available material can happen quickly and effortlessly. If you agree that this might be fun to do, feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments section below.

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