Let slip the dragonflies of war

“War!” as The Temptations sang in the 1970s, “What is it good for?” 

Little critters, biodiversity and the environment, that’s what, according to an emerging trend in conservation research. 

Human expansion is relentless, often to the detriment of other animals. Worldwide, there is a decline in the number of species to prove it. 

So, nature is finding the cracks in human habitation to thrive, places where we tread lightly or less, places forgotten or forbidden, or too dangerous to frequent. Conservation managers are following suit to investigate the conservation potential of previously overlooked sites.

Many of these, it transpires, are connected to our taste for war. 

A 2015 paper, waggishly titled Bombing for Biodiversity, and written by Australian National University scholars Rick Zentelis and David Lindenmayer, estimates that humans spend about $1753 billion a year on defence, an activity that employs 28 million people, and uses vast tracts of land as military training areas (MTAs). 

A new study of the conservation value of MTAs for dragonfly populations by Filip Harabiš and Aleš Dolný recently published in Biological Conservation, puts the figure conservatively at 50 million hectares (about the size of France) and more realistically at four to five times that: about 6% of the earth’s surface. 

These sites, despite the occasional armed horde, are mostly human-free and often fringed by untouched buffer zones: there’s no clearing of land, farming, logging or urbanisation. And there’s unlikely to be any, due to contamination and the presence of a litter of unexploded ordnance.

Our weapons might be nature’s insurance.

Perhaps the most famous example is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado, which was used for the manufacture and storage of chemical weapons. Closed in 1992, the Arsenal turned into, what cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling called, an “involuntary park”, with the site so contaminated that humans abandoned it, leaving space and opportunity for other species. Now more than 300 species of wildlife thrive there, ranging from eagles to bison. 

The reason behind the conservation value of MTAs is contested, with some arguing that the disturbances caused by military activities produces many different habitat types, drawing opportunistic settlers to them. Others, such as Harabiš and Dolný, maintain that it is the relative isolation and lack of human activity. The literature suggests that these both might be true for different species.

One study, led by Bartlomiej Goldyn of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, shows that human disturbance that produces temporary pools on land helps species of crustaceans, called branchiopods, to thrive. 

Given the modern reliance on mechanised infantry and their heavy tracked Armoured Personnel Carriers, it’s likely that such pools are often created in MTAs. On the other side, an isolated MTA near Berlin has become the home for the first wolf pack seen in Germany for a century.

Harabiš and Dolný conclude that for their target species, at least, it is the absence of humans that benefits water-dependent dragonfly populations in the Czech Republic. They also came to the paradoxical conclusion that, as MTAs are increasingly decommissioned, “the main potential problem in protecting freshwater habitats inside MTAs is the cessation of military activity”.

Unbelievably, perhaps the greatest threat to twenty-first century wildlife is the sudden and lasting outbreak of peace.

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