Walls and fortified fences are proliferating around the world as nationalism rises. These barriers pose a growing threat to wildlife, obstructing migration and endangering millions of species that will need to move to adapt to climate change.
Pity the lone lynx in the Polish half of Europe’s oldest forest. Their home, the Biaowiea Forest, was cut in half in June when the Polish government finished building a wall along its border with Belarus. The goal was to keep refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere from crossing the border, which the Belarus government was doing. However, the 115-mile (185-kilometer) wall, which towers 18ft (5.5m) above the forest floor and stretches almost into the canopy above, has also imprisoned migrating wildlife.
The dozen or so lynx on the Polish side of the border will be unable to hunt, feed, or breed with their more numerous counterparts across the border. The wall dividing the 1,200 square-mile (3,100-square-kilometer) forest is expected to increase lynx hunger and, by limiting mate options, reduce their already low genetic diversity.
More than 500 wildlife scientists pleaded with the European Commission in Brussels in a letter sent in January, as construction on the wall began, to use its powers to stop the Polish government’s project. They warned that if the project went ahead, the forest’s ecology would suffer “devastating consequences,” including the “collapse of the Polish lowland lynx population.”
Regardless, the wall was built. According to Rafa Kowalczyk of the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Mammal Research Institute, who signed the letter, the Polish lynx is now “at risk of extirpation,” or local extinction.
There are currently 74 border walls around the world, which is six times the number at the end of the Cold War.
The Biaowiea barricade is one of a growing number of fortified walls and fences sprouting along national borders around the world, often topped with razor wire and scoured by searchlights. Their construction is fueled by rising fears about cross-border migrants, terrorists, drug smugglers, and, in the case of Ukraine’s wall, a failed attempt to deter Russian armed forces from infiltrating into the country’s east.
- Many of these barriers are appearing in remote regions that have previously been nature preserves, ranging from the swamps of Africa to the mountains of South East Asia, and from the US-Mexico border to the steppes of Central Asia. They are impeding large animal seasonal migrations, reducing genetic and species diversity, and endangering the futures of millions of species that will need to relocate their domains to adapt to climate change.
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As species and ecosystems try to adapt to warmer temperatures and shifting weather patterns caused by climate change, the threat posed by border barriers to wildlife will only grow. According to Mark Titley of Durham University in the United Kingdom, this is especially true when the barriers stretch long distances from east to west, preventing poleward shifts, or follow contours on mountainsides, preventing similar movements uphill to cooler climes.
Titley and colleagues published a study last year that concluded that by 2070, 35% of mammals will have more than half of their climate niches in countries where they are not currently found. As a result of their inability to cross borders, they face extinction. Titley singled out three key borders as having the greatest number of threatened species: those between China and Russia, the United States and Mexico, and India and Myanmar. All three are currently surrounded by barricades.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. “When the Iron Curtain came down in the early 1990s, it seemed as if a borderless world had arrived,” says John Linnell of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. author of a global study on the effects of new barriers on wildlife “The spread of transboundary cooperation in wildlife conservation.”
However, in recent years, a rising tide of sometimes xenophobic nationalism has seen many nations erect walls along their borders, as well as reinforce and militarise previously flimsy border fences – often in apparent violation of international environmental laws, such as the Convention on Migratory Species, which requires migration routes to be protected.
According to Elisabeth Vallet of the University of Quebec in Canada, there are now 74 border walls around the world, which is six times the number at the end of the Cold War. They stretch for over 20,000 miles (32,000km).
Although gates have been installed along one border wall, ‘animals will not stand in line waiting for the gates to be opened.’
Some barriers kill animals directly by entangling them in electric currents, razor wire, or by entangling them in tangles. Others obstruct migration routes, denying animals access to vital resources like watering holes and seasonal pastures, or deter animals with roads, patrols, or harsh lighting. “The fence construction epidemic continues,” Linnell says. “And the newer fences are more durable than the older ones.”
India has fenced roughly three-quarters of its 2,500-mile (4,000-kilometer) border with Bangladesh, effectively stopping cross-border movements of wild Asian elephants, whose natural range extends from north-east India to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Nepal. The Israeli “separation wall,” which stretches for 440 miles (700 kilometres) around the Palestinian West Bank, also prevents seasonal movements of gazelles, foxes, wolves, and other animals between the West Bank’s hills and the surrounding lowlands.
According to a study led by Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel Aviv University, “increased fragmentation [of their habitat] deprives gazelles of the opportunity to freely track food sources as these become available seasonally.” As a result, the number of mountain gazelles has plummeted, with only 2,000 remaining in the wild.
Environmentalists have paid the most attention to the Polish wall through the Biaowiea primaeval forest in Europe. According to the scientists’ letter, the forest is “the last remaining temperate lowland forest in Europe that has existed with little human disturbance since the end of the last ice age.” The wall crosses an ecological corridor that is “of pan-European importance,” according to the researchers, and was previously part of “the main dispersal route of large mammals.”
Researchers at the Mammal Research Institute, based in the forest village of Biaowiea, say threatened animals include a unique population of 800 European bison, the continent’s largest land mammal, as well as brown bears attempting to cross the border from Belarus into Poland. The previously open border in the forest is thought to have been followed by a lone brown bear seen in the Polish section of the forest in the last three years – the first such sighting in 80 years. However, the wall has now “broken the possibility of recolonisation in the Polish part of the forest,” according to Kowalczyk.
When the project was first announced, the Polish government responded to critics by promising to install 24 wildlife gates. However, Kowalczyk claims that today “The gates have been and will continue to be closed. [The gates were] merely a calming agent, intended to give the impression that the government would maintain connectivity “. In any case, “animals will not stand in a queue at the wall waiting for the gates to be opened,” says his institute colleague Krzysztof Schmidt.
The Polish wall is one of several being built across Europe since a surge of migrants from the Middle East and Africa began in 2015. Both Greece and Bulgaria have barricaded their borders with Turkey. Hungary built fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia totaling more than 200 miles (320 kilometres). Slovenia barricaded off Croatia, Austria did the same, and North Macedonia built 23 miles (37 kilometres) of metal barriers between itself and Greece.