Most people do not associate war and wildlife. Although wildlife documentaries may show conflicts between animals, such as among male lions for control of their pride, or the ongoing fight for survival between prey and predators, human wars are rarely shown.
Yet, perhaps surprisingly, many wars are fought in areas where wildlife roam. Research around the millennium found that most conflicts of the previous fifty years had taken place within biodiversity hotspots (areas which have a large diversity of flora and fauna) and almost all conflicts had taken place in countries which contained one or more of these biodiversity hotspots.
Since then, many wars continue amid the habitats of some of our most iconic species: snow leopards in Afghanistan, gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and elephants in the Central African Republic, to name a few.
These conflicts are often devastating for wildlife; in DR Congo, for example, the number of Grauer’s gorillas in the country plummeted from over 20,000 to only 3-4,000, leading them to be classified as critically endangered.
Even when wars end, the impact of the post-conflict period can be severe for wildlife and their habitat; people rebuilding their homes and struggling to find food are often forced to rely on bushmeat and timber from forests. And where law and order is weak, criminal gangs may become involved in the illegal trade in timber and wildlife as well; sometimes it is former rebel soldiers that set up those criminal gangs.
The picture does not look good for wildlife, but might there be another way? That is a question that one of our co-founders, Rich, asked during his PhD studies. And it turns out, there might just be a solution.
There are already examples of former combatants from rebel groups engaged in civil wars converting into conservation guards. For example, after the civil war in Mozambique ended, some former rebels were trained as rangers and conducted patrols with soldiers from the army they had previously been at war with. Not only did that help to protect wildlife, but it also help to build peace, establishing trust between soldiers who previously fought each other.
Rich had an idea that the Mozambique programme, and others like it, could be scaled up to save wildlife. He suggested creating a unit of ‘Yellow Berets’; former combatants who would work as rangers, under the control of the United Nations (UN). His idea was to create a force similar to the ‘Blue Helmets’ UN peacekeepers, but whose role was to protect wildlife and their habitat in the aftermath of war.
His research was mostly focused on DR Congo, so the notion of ‘guerrillas protecting gorillas’ emerged. Given the shortage of rangers in the country and the ongoing losses of wildlife and habitat, as well as the continuing suffering caused by rebel groups still operating in the east, the yellow berets might help to solve those problems and ease both human and animal suffering.
So, keep an eye out to see if the idea becomes a reality; in a few years, you might see these yellow berets on a wildlife documentary about the gorillas.