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.
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