Yet the long-running war in Southeast Asia also helped to stave off exploitation of one of the planet's most biologically fascinating areas—the region along the Vietnam-Laos border known as the Annamite Mountains. Called "a Noah's Ark lost in time" by the naturalist George Schaller, this rainy, forested area is a marvelous trove of biodiversity. Although hunters used to prey on its unusual wildlife, during the war they had to skirt battle zones to avoid unexploded land mines, and the trade in wildlife from that region dropped off. In some of those same bomb-strafed forests, the trees are still so filled with metal fragments that the lumber is too dangerous to harvest, which also keeps humans away. Two decades after the war ended, field surveys done there turned up a large number of species unknown to science, including no fewer than five large mammals.
SPOT Satellite Image of the Sami-Ch'on Valley, part of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. (Image courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)
Even in the absence of war, countries often create protected areas along borders, because it makes sense to have uninhabited land in politically sensitive zones. About a tenth of the world's protected wildlife areas are along borders. In a 1999 study
, Dorothy Zbicz of Duke University identified 169 clusters of what she calls transfrontier protected area complexes, involving 113 countries—more than half the nations in the world.
Pursuing the creation of cooperative "peace parks" makes a lot of sense for ensuring the security of both wildlife and people. The South Africa–based Peace Parks Foundation, which works to promote jointly managed transborder protected areas around the world, has helped establish several such regions in Africa, including a huge park linking Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe.
The multinational World Conservation Union, headquartered in Switzerland, is coordinating a project to create a massive transborder greenbelt that would eventually extend from the border of Russia and Finland southward through areas once obscured by the iron curtain: the old, rural East and West German border and parts of the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Ideally, the belt would then divide into forks to include both Bulgaria's southern border and the adjoining areas of Macedonia and Greece. The greenbelt will provide a series of natural bridges between various national parks and refuges. In Germany, the former iron curtain divide is already an 870-mile-long ecological corridor.
Birds fly undisturbed through the DMZ. (Image courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)
Although the aftermath of war—and even the implicit threat—can aid conservation, war is generally every bit as bad for the environment as it is for people. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, troop movement and heavy bombing had a serious impact on the two countries' shared fragile desert ecosystem, which is home to such species as sand cats and spiny-tailed lizards. Once the desert crust layer is damaged and the sand underneath blows away, restoration can take many years. Iraqi ecosystems continued to deteriorate with the 1990–1991 Gulf War and the myriad problems in Iraq since.
As with so many conflicts in the world, Iraq's turmoil has produced a tidal wave of refugees—estimated at more than 1.1 million people at the start of the war in 2003—and their mass movement, along with their livestock, poses an additional threat to habitats and wildlife. During the decade-long Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, three million refugees, and their voracious goats, fled to western Pakistan, where the animals devastated the region's dry, fragile land.
One positive development in the midst of the relentlessly distressing picture in Iraq is the restoration of the marshlands of Mesopotamia, considered by some to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. The regime of Saddam Hussein drained 90 percent of the marshlands of southern Mesopotamia, and as the wildlife fled, so did some 170,000 Marsh Arabs who lived in the region. Now the Canada-Iraq Marshlands Initiative is reviving the habitat. So far, 40 percent of the area has been reflooded, and wildlife is beginning to come back. Among the returning birds are 18 globally threatened species; several of them, like the Basra reed warbler, are found almost nowhere else on Earth.
Some day, there may even be a transboundary peace park covering the full extent of the marshlands of Mesopotamia, a new Garden of Eden shared by Iraq and Iran.
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