The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Countless living things are under attack in Ukraine

Written by John R. Platt

falco cherrugThe Ukrainian roosting areas of the endangered Saker falcon  face a threat from military conflict precipitated by the Russian invasion. International Union for Conservation of Nature 

10 ways war is bad for the natural world

This story was originally published by The Revelator. Here's a related story about endangered species in Ukraine threatened by the invading forces of Vladimir Putin.

As war and conflicts rage on in Ukraine, Yemen, South Sudan, Libya and other places around the globe, it’s important to look at the long-term effects of military strife, which can destroy the environment as easily as it destroys lives. (Thousands of humans have already perished in the invasion.)

“Russia’s military operations in a heavily industrialized, densely populated nation containing numerous refineries, chemical plants, and metallurgical facilities further compounds the threat of these hostilities for Ukraine’s people and their environment, both now and for years to come.”

Here are 10 of the most dangerous ways war affects the animals and plants around us — many of which also harm humans in the process. 

1. Bullets and bombs

The military may aim at people and infrastructure, but other life gets in the way. This can be hard to track, but a study published in Nature in 2018 found that even a one-year conflict can cause local wildlife populations to crash. And a 2013 paper from PLoS One speculated that the Barbary lion may have gone extinct when its last forest refuge was destroyed during the 1958 French-Algerian War.

2. Toxics and pollution

Heavy metals like lead can stay in the environment long after a bullet has been fired or a bomb exploded. Chemical agents like herbicides (often used in war to defoliate forested hideouts) can harm a wide range of species, either immediately or for decades after. The use of Agent Orange in Vietnam contaminated the soil for generations, affecting fish and birds before traveling up the food chain to humans.

Other damage can come from what gets destroyed during war. We see that on display in Ukraine right now, as hundreds of experts and organizations expressed their concerns March 3 in an open letter released through the Environmental Peacebuilding Association: “Russia’s military operations in a heavily industrialized, densely populated nation containing numerous refineries, chemical plants, and metallurgical facilities further compounds the threat of these hostilities for Ukraine’s people and their environment, both now and for years to come.”

3. Noise pollution

Those explosions, fighter jets, tanks and other weapons of war don’t have to hit you to hurt you. Firearms, missiles and vehicles make a lot of noise. This constant cacophony can disrupt the patterns of wild animals, affecting sleep, migration and the ability to hear and track prey. A 2016 study I covered for Audubon magazine found that owls could not hear their prey when manmade sound levels reached just 61 decibels. Many military rifles, by comparison, produce noise at around 150 decibels — and that’s quiet compared to some weapons or vehicles.

4. Habitat destruction and degradation

How would your home fare after a line of tanks rolled through your front yard? Not well, I presume.

And that’s true in war. A 2002 paper published in Conservation Biology documented the environmental damage from conflicts between 1961 and 2000, including deforestation, erosion, encroachment on wildlife reserves, pollution, oil spills, marshland drainage, the release of invasive species and more. The authors described many of these conditions as “severe.” Some nations have never recovered.

5. Poaching, subsistence hunting, firewood collection and other ways of “living off the land” by hungry soldiers, locals and refugees

An army travels on its stomach — and, as we’re seeing in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, those soldiers aren’t always well fed, either through lack of planning or supply-chain disruptions. This can cause…problems. During World War II, stranded and starving Japanese soldiers ate a flightless bird called the Wake Island rail out of existence. Wars have also caused widely documented declines in elephants, gorillas, bonobos, a range of ungulates and hundreds of other species.

6. Domino effect

Let’s say those hungry soldiers eat all the local herbivores — what happens to the ecosystem after they’re gone?

In Gorongosa National Park, the disappearance of elephants and other large vegetation-eating species during the 1977-1992 Mozambican Civil War resulted in a 34% increase in tree cover, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Ecology. This might seem like a good thing, but as the authors wrote it’s a sign of an ecosystem out of balance:

“Woody encroachment is a significant conservation and management concern in savannas, grasslands and rangelands where it threatens native herbaceous plant species and the animals and ecosystem processes that depend on them. Further tree-cover expansion in Gorongosa could inhibit recolonization of some areas by species that prefer open habitats (including buffalo, wildebeest and zebra).”

7. Killing of civilian conservation workers and destruction of conservation facilities and infrastructure

Who will help species in need if trained and experienced professionals are killed or displaced? In 2012 efforts to conserve the okapi (a giraffe relative that looks like a cross between a zebra and a horse) suffered a devastating setback when a militia attack killed six people at the Okapi Conservation Project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rebels also killed all 14 of the project’s resident okapi, burned buildings and looted supplies.

More recently, six rangers protecting the DRC’s famous mountain gorillas were ambushed and killed last year by the Mai-Mai militia group — one of many such attacks. The Thin Green Line Foundation, which supports wildlife rangers, estimates that 100 rangers are murdered every year on average.

As wartimes threatens these conservation personnel, they become ever-more important, as the authors of the 2002 Conservation Biology paper wrote:

“It is local conservationists and field staff who must maintain continuity of presence during periods of political instability, establish lines of communication with local government officials and military administrators in rapidly shifting political landscapes, and provide much-needed material and moral support to besieged reserve personnel in regions beset by war and civil conflict. In instances where government institutions have been overthrown or ceased to function, local nongovernmental organizations and conservationists can help maintain continuity in conservation programs.”

8. Epidemics affecting people, livestock and wildlife

War has long been a breeding ground for disease (and the advent of bioweapons makes things even worse). Just last week health experts warned that the invasion of Ukraine could speed the spread of Covid-19 and other diseases. Historical wildlife disease outbreaks documented during wartime include rinderpest, anthraxrabies, human monkeypox, bubonic plague and foot-and-mouth disease. Many of these diseases either directly threatened people or pushed them further toward starvation.

9. Resource extraction

Too many wars have been fought over gold, oil or other lucrative natural resources. War also makes illegal extraction easier, whether it’s mining in conflict zones or poaching in lawless zones. The militia that attacked the Okapi Conservation Center in 2012 was retaliating against efforts to restrict their illegal ivory trading and gold mining.

There’s another angle to this, of course: Oil and gas extraction are the heart of the Ukraine conflict, and that’s just making climate change worse. How many more conflicts over food, water and other scarce resources will this fuel in the future?

10. Disruption of government services, financial and human capital, and political instability

If you’re busy fighting for your survival, patrolling for poachers or polluters is the least of your worries. Meanwhile death, exhaustion and trauma take their toll at every level of society.

Those are probably the biggest messages of the 2002 Conservation Biology paper, which should ring true in this time of war two decades later.

And the effects, the authors warned, won’t be short term. War causes scarcity, which furthers social and political conflict, which begets more war. The loss of wildlife can have cascading environmental consequences, ranging from extinctions to outbreaks of disease and invasive species. Opportunistic corporations and criminals use the cover of war to increase their environmentally destructive activities. Conservation funding gets shifted to military and police operations — perhaps permanently. Wartime disruptions to sanitation and medical infrastructure can cause long-term epidemics, while destruction of waste facilities or oil, gas or nuclear operations can poison the landscape for generations.

So can the human trauma of war. Just ask the millions of people fleeing Ukraine today, many of whom are descendants of refugees of earlier wars and already carry their ancestors’ stories in their hearts, minds, history and culture.

Rate this item
(1 Vote)
Published in News

Related items

  • There’s a whole world in the dirt beneath your feet
    in News
    Dust bowl soilThe Dust Bowl of the 1930s resulted in the displacement of tons of soil in the midst of a drought similar to the one that grips the Southwest today. Library of Congress

    Dirt is far from just dirt. It’s a foundation for life.

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    Look down. You may not see the soil beneath your feet as teeming with life, but it is.

    Better scientific tools are helping us understand that dirt isn’t just dirt. Life in the soil includes microbes like bacteria and fungi; invertebrates such as earthworms and nematodes; plant roots; and even mammals like gophers and badgers who spend part of their time below ground.

    It’s commonly said that a quarter of all the planet’s biodiversity lives in the soil, but that’s likely a vast understatement. Many species that reside there, particularly microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and protists, aren’t yet known to science.

  • The South’s hidden climate threat
    in News

    Spreading avens in bloom 9406109069Spreading avens are seen in bloom in the Appalachians. The endangered long-stemmed perennials survive in higher mountain elevations but their lack of space to move higher in elevation in times of climate change and warming further threaten the plant.  USFWS

    It’s not just the coastlines that are recording climate change. Even the mountains of North Carolina are feeling the heat — including some endangered plants

    “Atlanta reporter Dan Chapman retraced John Muir’s 1867 trek through the South, including the naturalist’s troubling legacy, to reveal environmental damage and loss that’s been largely overlooked.” This is an excerpt published by The Revelator from his book, A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir’s Journey Through an Endangered Land.

    BOONE — It’s a wonder anything survives the ice, snow, and winds that pummel the ridge, let alone the delicate-seeming yellow flowers known as spreading avens.

    The lovely, long-stemmed perennials are exceedingly rare, officially listed as endangered, and found only in the intemperate highlands of North Carolina and Tennessee. They sprout from shallow acidic soils underlying craggy rock faces and grassy heath balds. At times blasted with full sun, but mostly shrouded in mist, the avens are survivors, Ice Age throwbacks that refuse to die. Geum radiatum is only known to exist in fourteen places, including hard-to-find alpine redoubts reached via deer trail or brambly bushwhacking.

  • In Ukraine, fear of nuclear plants riven by Russia cuts to the core
    in News

    Chernobyl Anniversary Image 95ygu3xoy2ou9ehve2dk952The Chornobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine is seen in 1986 after a fire devastated the plant and led to radiation emissions that spread across the European continent. United Nations

    36 years after the Chornobyl crisis, Ukraine presents a test for nuclear reactor survivability

    This story was originally published in The Revelator.

    CHORNOBYL, UKRAINE — It took less than a minute after an unexpected power surge for one of the nuclear reactors at Chornobyl (Chernobyl in the Russian spelling) to explode on April 26, 1986, ripping the roof off and spewing dangerous toxins into the air.

    The event, and emergency cleanup that followed, left 30 workers dead, thousands exposed to cancer-causing nuclear material and later death, and a legacy of radiation. Now, 36 years later and with war raging, Ukraine is desperate to prevent another nuclear disaster.

    Nuclear reactors generate more than half of the country’s power. Ukraine is the first country with such a large and established nuclear energy program to experience war, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

  • New year. Old challenges.

    168691309 4048180571871818 2861942263530178348 n

    From plastic pollution to extreme weather and the extinction crisis, the year ahead promises tough fights, enormous challenges and critical opportunities

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    A new year brings with it new opportunities — and more of the same environmental threats from the previous 12 months.

  • A lot of aquatic life is now swimming, crawling, balling and growing in a weird pharmaceutical stew

    The Revelator: Residual drugs largely unfiltered by existing wastewater plants

    Aquatic species around the world are exposed to at least 600 types of residual drugs, ranging from anti-inflammatories to antidepressants, and it’s not fully understood how these chemicals will ultimately affect marine ecosystems.

    Some research indicates that a species of crayfish is emboldened by antidepressant compounds in the presence of predators, lessening its flight response. Scientists have also noted the presence of pharmaceuticals among invertebrates, as well as seaweed.

    More work is needed to further document the effects of the chemicals on the behavior and reproduction of aquatic life, but people can temper the introduction of pharmaceuticals in the first place by never flushing medications down the toilet or any other drain, and checking in on the filter technologies in place at their local wastewater treatment plant. Some advanced carbon filters can successfully remove pharmaceuticals from wastewater before it’s released into the environment.

  • One town tried to eliminate waste. Plastic posed a problem.

    Kamikatsu Yuki Shimazu

    Kamikatsu, Japan, famously declared its goal was to go waste-free by 2020. It didn’t quite get there.

    This story was originally published in The Revelator

    One of the many unfortunate outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the quick and obvious increase in single-use plastic products. After COVID-19 arrived in the United States, many grocery stores prohibited customers from using reusable bags, coffee shops banned reusable mugs, and takeout food with plastic forks and knives became the new normal.

    Despite recent scientific evidence that reusables don’t transmit the virus, the plastic industry has lobbied hard for a return to all things disposable plastic. Inevitably, a lot of that plastic will continue to flow into our environment.

    While COVID-19 has certainly thrown a wrench into the hard-earned progress we’d been making in reducing waste, eliminating plastic pollution entirely was always going to be challenging — with or without a pandemic. The jarring rise of single-use plastics is an expedited version of a familiar trend. Plastic production has been steadily increasing for quite some time.

    As a zero-waste advocate, I’ve seen how the tsunami of plastic continuously being produced and flooding our planet has made achieving zero-waste goals incredibly difficult. The sheer amount makes it hard to safely and efficiently dispose of plastic, no matter how hard we try.

    But as I examine the problem, and search for solutions, I keep coming back to one noteworthy example. 

  • Face your fears: It’s time to have a global conversation about spider conservation
    in News

    Sue Cameron USFWSU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Susan Cameron searches moss mats for the spruce-fir moss spider in this USFWS photo.

    European spidey senses should give us pause across the pond.

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    Despite their enormous ecological values, new research reveals we don’t understand how most arachnid species are faring right now — or do much to protect them.

    Spiders need our help, and we may need to overcome our biases and fears to make that happen.

    “The feeling that people have towards spiders is not unique,” says Marco Isaia, an arachnologist and associate professor at the University of Turin in Italy. “Nightmares, anxieties and fears are very frequent reactions in ‘normal’ people,” he concedes.

  • Saving America’s “Amazon” in Alabama
    Book cover Saving Americas Amazon in Alabama


    Alabama is home to remarkably diverse ecosystems:
    They face dire threats.

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    When longtime environmental journalist Ben Raines started writing a book about the biodiversity in Alabama, the state had 354 fish species known to science. When he finished writing 10 years later, that number had jumped to 450 thanks to a bounty of new discoveries. Crawfish species leaped from 84 to 97 during the same time.

    It’s indicative of a larger trend: Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, but few people know it. And even scientists are still discovering the rich diversity of life that exists there, particularly in the Mobile River basin.

    All this newly discovered biodiversity is also gravely at risk from centuries of exploitation, which is what prompted Raines to write his new book, “Saving America’s Amazon.”