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Conservation biology graduate student Nicole Benjamin-Fink

Wildlife in war zones

Graduate student Nicole Benjamin-Fink has devoted herself to bettering the plight of wildlife and ecosystems in war-torn countries

By Kate Tyler

January 10, 2006

Eight years ago, following her two-year stint in her country's military service, Israeli native Nicole Benjamin-Fink took a year off before college to work at a hotel on a promontory overlooking the Dead Sea in southern Israel. She lived in Arad, a small town between the Negev and Judean deserts. At sunset, as the sky blazed orange and purple over the area's red hills, she would walk 10 minutes into the desert and settle in to watch gerbils, lizards, and the odd turtle or onager (a rare wild horse) emerge from hiding.

"People have a stereotype of the desert as empty, but it's incredibly rich with biodiversity, and so tranquil and beautiful it's hard to put into words," says Benjamin-Fink, a Ph.D. candidate in conservation biology. The desert comes most fully alive after dark, Benjamin-Fink says, her face lighting up as she describes the hours she spent in rapt observation amid the dunes and scrub of what she describes as "the never-ending untouched desert landscape."

On any given night, she'd see--and hear--hundreds of desert rodents and beetles, eagles, and snakes. Most animals are camouflaged, but "if you sit very still, you'll start noticing them. It's so mesmerizing you never want to get up," Benjamin-Fink says. Nestled among the desert's rocks might be a hyrax (a nimble mammal resembling a robust guinea pig). Munching on acacia trees might be an ibex (a wild goat). A graceful gazelle might suddenly leap into view, or even a caracal, a handsome wild cat. And Bedouin desert-dwellers might pass by with their herds of camels or sheep, signs of an ancient and now vanishing traditional way of life.

The good news for conservationists, Benjamin-Fink says, is that even the most war weary leaders care deeply about biodiversity. "They understand that these are issues of global importance," she says. "They also know that biodiversity decision making can't simply be put on hold-not if they want to have a biodiverse and sustainable environment when the violence ends."

Within an hour's drive of Arad are the cities of Beersheba and Jerusalem, where terrorism is an all-too-familiar part of daily life. Such violence may seem removed from the quiet world of the desert, but that is wishful thinking, Benjamin-Fink says. The everyday juxtaposition of violence and natural life goes right to the heart of her work, which centers on preserving biodiversity in countries torn apart by human conflict.

Even the most intrepid of Israel's desert animals, such as the jackal or leopard, are no match for bombs, land mines, and rumbling tanks, Benjamin-Fink observes. She emphasizes that war wreaks direct havoc on biodiversity by fragmenting the landscape: Firing zones disrupt migrational paths, for example; or roads, fences, and training camps interrupt mating territories.

Much of Benjamin-Fink's Middle Eastern research is concerned with war's indirect impact on biodiversity. Where war and terrorism dominate, political leaders are hard pressed to move issues such as habitat destruction, overgrazing, illegal poaching, or even pollution to the top of the agenda. In dozens of interviews with Israeli scientists and upper-level leaders, she heard the same theme over and over: "When saving the caracal means fewer guards in bus stations targeted by suicide bombers, you can see the dilemma for decision makers, both from a practical and a political perspective."

The good news for conservationists, Benjamin-Fink says, is that even the most war weary leaders care deeply about biodiversity. "They understand that these are issues of global importance," she says. "They also know that biodiversity decision making can't simply be put on hold--not if they want to have a biodiverse and sustainable environment when the violence ends."

An ibex
Animals, like this ibex, who live in war zones are in danger from fragmented landscapes and firing zones, as well as other hazards.

Photo by Nicole Benjamin-Fink

Benjamin-Fink says conservation scientists have a strong role to play in helping the world's most beleaguered policymakers weigh biodiversity issues. She is identifying strategies that tighten the link between science and policy--which in turn will help leaders keep one eye firmly fixed on the horizon of biodiversity and long-term sustainability, whether in Israel, Colombia, Somalia, or any other country where war and terrorism are facts of everyday life.

In a real sense, Benjamin-Fink has been thinking about these issues all her life. "In Israeli schools, children learn to protect and love and nurture the land," says Benjamin-Fink, who grew up in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon. When she wasn't watching the National Geographic Channel, she was camping out with friends. She spent her two years of military service working in communications and intelligence. Then came her year in Arad, where she fell head over heels in love with the desert.

She majored in biology at the University of Haifa, then worked in the Israeli Nature and National Parks Protection Authority as an ecological guide. She also taught high school biology for a year, but as her mind wandered back to the complex biodiversity of the desert, she began thinking about big-picture ecological issues in her country.

Israel is home to four distinct eco-regions. Its arid deserts (about 60 percent of the land), alpine slopes, coastal plains, and lush Mediterranean woods are home to some 2,600 plant species and 100 species of mammals. With 500 species of birds, the country also is a major flyway for birds migrating from Europe and Western Asia to Africa.

What intrigues Benjamin-Fink as much as this astonishing biodiversity is that her country has managed to maintain a commitment to conservation against a backdrop of unending war. Not only is conservation education a priority in schools, but a fifth of the country is given over to national parks and wildlife preserves. Yet Benjamin-Fink is keenly aware that Israel's biodiversity is fragile and under constant siege. If it's not fighter jets flying over the desert, it's hotels proliferating between the desert and the Dead Sea. Exploring these issues at the national policy level, she focuses on what she calls "the question for internationally minded conservationists": How can policymakers preoccupied with keeping citizens safe from warfare and terrorist bombings justify investing time and resources in biodiversity?

Benjamin-Fink came to the University of Minnesota four years ago, in part to work with professor James Perry, an expert on issues of water quality and environmental management in rapidly changing countries. Being in the United States has given her a fresh perspective on biodiversity decision making. "When you take the huge factor of everyday violence out of the equation, everything is different," she says. "The choices aren't constrained in the same way. Biodiversity becomes a card to be played politically."

Benjamin-Fink notes that terrorism's impact on policymaking is different in countries where bombings are routine and in those where they occur intermittently. "After the shock of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, there was a consensus here that no measure taken for national security would be too great," she says.

In contrast, even with armed soldiers patrolling the streets and buses blowing up, "people in Israel continue to travel long distances to visit national parks and to follow news about efforts to reintroduce species, "Benjamin-Fink says. "Israelis avidly support conservation--even to the point where they are willing to sacrifice some of their security."

Still, conservationists must make sure biodiversity decision making stays on the agenda in Israel and other hotspots, Benjamin-Fink stresses. Her discovery that both ordinary citizens and Israeli political leaders care about biodiversity raises hope that species will survive and ecosystems will remain sustainable in many troubled lands.

Conservationists have no magic answers, Benjamin-Fink allows, but they can provide leaders with information that will support good biodiversity decisions. "If you're the prime minister of Israel, you won't have the time or money to commission an environmental impact study every time you need to build a road, much less to study the viability of white-tailed sea eagles," says Benjamin-Fink. "If they just didn't care, we'd have a big problem. But they do care. They just need us--scientists--to supply the tools."

From Imprint, Winter 05/06, a publication of the Bell Museum of Natural History.