By Emily Anthes
© The New York Times Co.
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 whitetailed 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, Krasnolutskyi said: “Their ecosystems and species have become vulnerable.”
Reports from the ground, and research on previous armed conflicts, suggest that the ecological effect 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.
“Humans are generally disruptive,” said Robert Pringle, a biologist at Princeton University, “and that includes their conflicts.”
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% of the world’s major armed conflicts took place in biodiversity hot spots, areas that are rich in native species but under threat, Hanson and his colleagues found in a 2009 study.
The take-home message, 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 effect 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, Hanson said.
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 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.
Still, research suggests that war wreaks much of its ecological havoc less directly. “The longterm 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.
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% 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.
Wild boars, in particular, were plentiful, but between 1991 and 1995, their population plummeted by about 50%. “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, Bragina said.
War also has opportunity costs as funds and priorities shift from conservation to human survival.
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 whitenaped 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.
Restoration is possible. In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, an intensive recovery project has been underway since the 2000s. It includes enhanced antipoaching 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 “reestablishing control over invasive plant species,” said 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.