Minefields as Habitats

In Angola, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Argentina, animals are making habitats of minefields.  Through superior senses of smell or simply being too light to trigger the mines, certain animal species have taken advantage of the fact that humans are afraid to enter the minefields.  The minefields have become de facto wildlife preserves and formerly endangered species have been able to re-establish their populations.

Minefields as Habitats

Landmine clearance is an important step for development.  As long as minefields exist, the land they are in cannot be used for agriculture or transport or other human uses.  The following examples show how, when development is blocked by landmines, Nature finds a way to exploit the absence of development.  This is not, in any way, shape or form, an excuse to allow landmines to remain in the ground.  Instead, these examples should be seen as demonstration of the need for managed and sustainable development.

In Angola, elephants hunted for their ivory suffered tremendously when they first encountered the minefields of southern Africa.  Losing trunks and limbs to mines, elephants have learned to detect the scent of the explosive residues in the mines.  During the Angolan civil war, elephant ivory was used to fund rebel forces, but with the end of the conflict and a greater awareness of the location of the minefields, Botswanan elephants have begun to migrate to the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, the Angolan portion of which is contaminated with mines.  Researchers with Conservation International used satellite tracking to monitor elephant migration patterns and clearly saw that elephants were avoiding the minefields that remain in the park.  Conservation International’s scientists called for demining of the park to be combined with anti-poaching measures that would ensure that the elephants would continue to be safe when humans no longer had the mines to fear (Peace Parks Foundation).

National Geographic, in its piece on the thriving Persian leopard populations living on the mine-riddled border between Iran and Iraq in the Caucasus mountain range, takes on the question of landmines versus conservation.  Tens of millions of mines were laid by the Iranian and Iraqi armies in the 1980s and those mines have created a protected area for the leopard.  As a result, conservationists like the group, Nature Iraq, have taken the controversial position of opposing landmine clearance, despite the fact that several leopards are known to have been killed or wounded by landmines.  Demining would not just open up the leopards’ territory to hunters but also allow for development of the mountain areas as has been done in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.  With less than a thousand individuals left, the leopard is endangered and deserves protection, but Iraq has committed, via the Mine Ban Treaty, to clear its landmines and there is increasing pressure in Iran to clear landmines, even though Iran remains outside the Treaty.

Argentina and Great Britain fought a war over the Falkland Islands (known as Islas Malvinas in Argentina) in 1982, a war over a 200-island archipelago inhabited by a few thousand people, hundreds of thousands of sheep and five species of penguins.  In the three decades since the Falklands war, the 20,000 landmines laid in the conflict, and the continuing political dispute over ownership of the islands, have prevented further development of the islands, including drilling for the oil known to be under the islands.  The absence of development has allowed the penguin population to rebound to roughly a million individuals, maybe a tenth of their historic populations before human interventions, but still an increase over their low points in the 1800s.  Penguins, unlike leopards and elephants, are too light to trigger most types of landmines so even though they may live within the minefields, they are relatively safe.  Great Britain has started demining the Falklands, as required by the Mine Ban Treaty, which would remove a part of the penguins’ protection; however, the continuing political tensions over the Falklands will continue to prevent development (Mental Floss).

In Northern Israel, ranchers and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority hunt and kill wolves that stray from specially designated preserves; poachers have also been known to poison and kill wolves within the preserves.  The militarized border in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria has become one of safest places for wolves to live.  Protected by barbed wire, landmines and anti-tank trenches, wolves have been able to avoid human threats and slowly re-grow their population.  Presumably the wolves’ keen sense of smell protects them from the mines.  There is a push in Israel to clear its minefields after a young boy lost his leg to a mine, but the conflicts in Syria will likely prevent the minefields in the Golan Heights from being cleared for some time (The Guardian).

Landmines prevent and disrupt development which is the real threat to these animal species.  It’s not the landmines that protect them, but the absence of humans.  To preserve these endangered species requires thoughtful and careful planning and development, and the clearance of the landmines.  Landmines do not protect habitats, merely demonstrate the importance of guaranteeing safe and secure habitats for all species.

Michael P. Moore

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org

February 20, 2015

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The Month in Mines, January 2015

New years always dawn with promise and 2015 is no different.  Last year, the parties to the Mine Ban Treaty re-committed to clearing all known minefields by 2025 and efforts this year will go a long way to seeing if that commitment can be met.  We also look forward to Mozambique’s declaration that it is landmine-free this year.  On the other side of the ledger, conflicts in Sudan, Libya, South Sudan, Mali and Somalia hold the threat of new landmine use while countries like Angola, Zimbabwe and Chad face long odds of meeting their current deadlines for landmine clearance.

Sudan

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) which is fighting against the regime in Sudan has signed Geneva Call’s Deed of Commitment and pledged to destroy its stockpile of anti-personnel landmines.  The SPLM-N also calls on the government of Sudan and the international community to assist with the demining of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.  In both statements (All Africa; Radio Dabanga), SPLM-N suggests new usage of anti-personnel mines by Sudan, which would be a violation of the Mine Ban Treaty.  Sudan claimed to have destroyed any stockpiled mines in 2008 (The Monitor), while SPLM-N claims to have captured mines from Sudanese forces in the last four years and claims Sudan laid mines in South Kordofan and Blue Nile in that same period.

In North Darfur, three people and their donkeys were killed when they struck a piece of unexploded ordnance.  The areas around East Jebel Marra where the incident occurred had been subject to fighting between Sudan Armed Forces and allied militia and rebel groups (Star Africa).

Somalia

The United States government is giving 20 mine-resistant vehicles, MRAPS, to Burundian and Ugandan forces serving in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) (Stars and Stripes).  Somalia routinely sees several explosive incidents each month, necessitating the use of mine-resistant vehicles by peacekeepers. Unfortunately, many civilians are also killed and injured by mines and explosive weapons and they will no benefit from the MRAPS.

Five people, a guard and four teachers from Kenya, were killed by a mine or IED targeting their vehicle in the central Somali city of Galkayo (All Africa).  In Kismayo in southern Somalia, two soldiers were killed and four civilians injured by a mine and the Juba region police arrested “many people” for the attack as part of a massive security sweep (Al Shahid).  In Mogadishu, two people were killed and three others injured by a landmine (All Africa).  Two children were killed and a third injured by a mine they were playing with near Bula-Burte town (Radio Bar-kulan).  Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a landmine attack in Mogadishu that killed a district commissioner and two bodyguards and injured two people near the scene (Anadolu Agency).

Mozambique

Once the most mined province in Mozambique, with 85 percent of the mines found in the country, the western province of Tete has been declared free of landmines.  Five million square meters and almost 75,000 landmines have been cleared, leaving just 5 of Mozambique’s 128 districts to be cleared of landmines before the whole country is mine-free (All Africa).

One of the biggest obstacles to clearing the mines in Mozambique has been simply knowing where they are.  Four major surveys of Mozambique’s minefields have been undertaken over the last 20 years with at least one of those surveys grossly over-estimating the landmine contamination and another grossly under-estimating it.  These surveys have led to years of wasted efforts on the part of humanitarian deminers who cleared land that didn’t need it while missing land that did.  Fortunately, accumulated knowledge and experience means that the extent of the problem is well-known now and accurate record-keeping means that deminers have documented the work completed and the work yet to be done.  So when Mozambique declares the last mine cleared later this year, we can believe the claim (Global Post).

Angola

The government of Japan donated US $180,000 to Angola for survey in Huila province and expansion of a health post in Luanda to support survivors (All Africa).  In 2014, some 5.3 million square meters of land in Cunene province were cleared of mines (All Africa).  The demining specialists in Cunene province recently completed a training program to increase their capacity (All Africa).

Landmines continue to plague Angola’s portion of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area.  Despite the presence of these mines, wildlife from Botswana have migrated to Angola with no reported injuries to date (Star Africa).

Western Sahara

One person was killed and three others injured by a landmine near the mine-riddled berm placed by Morocco dividing Western Sahara as they were herding their livestock (All Africa).

Uganda

With funding from Canada, researchers at Christian Blind Mission will pilot the use of 3-D printing to develop sockets for the fitting of prosthetic limbs for amputees (All Africa).

Egypt

A boy was killed and three others injured by a landmine in the Sinai peninsula (Ahram).

Mali

Six Nigerien peacekeepers with the MINUSMA contingent were injured by a landmine in northern Mali, near Gao (Star Africa).  Seven Senegalese peacekeepers were injured by a mine near Kidal (Reuters). These casualties are a continuation of the wave of landmine casualties experienced by peacekeepers in Mali, over 100 in 2014 alone.  The UN has bought several mine-resistant vehicles for use by the peacekeepers, but delivery of those vehicles is too late for so many (Janes).

MINUSMA also found two landmines in Gao which were destroyed before they injured anyone (Studio Tamani). The Tuareg militia, MNLA, arrested four people who had a dozen landmines and were suspected of planning attacks (MNLA).

Zimbabwe

Rainy season in Zimbabwe has spurred the police to mount an awareness campaign to discourage people from tampering with suspicious items, including landmines which may get displaced during flooding (All Africa).

Libya

Fifteen tons of unexploded and abandoned ordnance was destroyed after clashes in the Hira area south of Tripoli.  The Libyan Demining Centre and the Military Engineering College partnered to dispose of the items (LANA).

Algeria

3,661 landmines were cleared in December 2014 bringing the total number cleared for the decade 2004 – 2014 to 758,607.  Most mines in Algeria date to the liberation war of the 1950s and 1960s, but additional mines were laid during the civil war in the early 1990s.  If the government can clear 4.9 linear kilometers of the remaining minefields along the country’s border, then Algeria should be able to meet its April 2017 clearance deadline (Defence Web).

South Sudan

In the recent conflict in South Sudan, anti-tank mines were reportedly laid and from the civil war that led to South Sudan’s independence, anti-personnel and anti-tank mine were used. In January, Unity State began the process of clearing the landmines from the most recent conflict to enable persons displaced by the conflict to return to their homes (Talk of Sudan).

Michael P. Moore

February 18, 2015

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org