For more than 17 years, Dr. Ann LaBastille has almost single-handedly battled to save the giant pie-billed grebe from extinction. The giant grebe, existing only on volcano-rimmed Lake Atitlan in central Guatemala, is one the world's rarest water birds.
Guerrilla warfare in Guatemala may have ended the struggle to save it.
This is just one example of the untold effects human conflicts have on wildlife. War's horrible impact on human lives and property is all too well known. But wars also have a profound effect on the natural environment - one that is too far-reaching to be overlooked. Ironically, war's effect on wildlife may sometimes be positive.
For example, in southern Sudan, where guerrilla warfare ravaged the land for 17 years, there now exists the second-largest wild mammal population left on earth (the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania has the largest). Hundreds of thousands of kob antelope blacken retired battlefields. Herds of forest elephants trudge among trees that once hid guerrilla fighters. In places like southern Sudan, Korea, and the Kashmir region of India, war has preserved the natural habitat and benefited wildlife by halting human development.
As Diana McMeacham, assistant director of the African Wildlife Leadership Fund, points out: ''War is just one of those tragedies of the human occupation of the planet (and), given a place to live and a few years of peace, most wildlife can make a comeback.
The struggle to save the pied-billed grebe in Lake Atitlan began in 1965, when Dr. LaBastille first arrived there. At that time, there were only 80 of these gray-black birds left.
Working closely with the Guatemala government, she obtained legal protection for the bird and began to teach the local inhabitants about its value to the lake ecosystem.
As a result of her efforts, the grebe population was about 230 by the mid-'70 s. The government proclaimed Lake Atitlan the country's first wildlife refuge, and named Edgar Bauer its first game warden.
Bauer became an integral part of the work to save the giant grebe. When the 1976 earthquake caused the lake's water level to drop 16 feet, he was responsible for transplanting more than 75,000 clumps of reeds to save the bird's habitat, according to Dr. LaBastille.
But during guerrilla fighting last May, Bauer was killed and his farm burned.
The grebe's habitat was already endangered by real estate development along the lakeshore, Dr. LaBastille says. Now she feels the bird's situation is critical: ''Without Edgar, there is no one to protect the reed beds from being cut and destroyed. And I'm pretty sure no one will be willing to go up there and replace him.''
Dr. LaBastille believes that Bauer was the target of a guerrilla attack, perhaps only because he worked for the government. ''There's no way I'd go back [to Guatemala]; I would get killed or kidnapped.'' She concludes: ''This means the bird will probably be extinct in five years.''
S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, says, ''The grebe situation is typical of the ways in which wars and revolutions are threatening many endangered species across the world.'' Adds Dr. LaBastille: ''When you're in the middle of a revolution, who's worried about a bird? You can't have war and save wildlife.''
* A species of crane could be another war fatality. Since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1978, the Siberian crane population has been halved and all programs to protect it have come to an end.
''Afghans don't know the difference between common crane and the Siberian and will shoot the rare bird for food unknowingly,'' explains George Archibald, founder and director of the International Crane Foundation. The war has put an end to a conservation education program he had started to save the bird. (Seven of the world's 15 species of crane are endangered.)
Theodore L. Eliot Jr., former US ambassador to Afghanistan and now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, says, ''I was probably the last foreigner, besides Soviet personnel, to visit the Siberian crane (at its home on a lake in eastern Afghanistan) . . . two months before the invasion came.''
He may have been one of the last Westerners to view it there, ever. According to a recent count taken in its winter breeding home in India, only 37 Siberian cranes are left of the group that migrates through Afghanistan. Mr. Archibald attributes this loss to ''war, hunger, and the much greater supply of weapons.''
Other species have also been affected by the Afghan war. According to Ambassador Eliot, a number - probably not more than 30 - of extremely rare Bactrian deer used to range through the central Ajar Valley. ''I doubt if they have survived the war.''
Eliot continues: ''The previous government was working with the UN to establish wildlife reserves at Lake Ab-i-Istada, in the northeast region of Pamir, where the rare Marco Polo sheep exists, and in the Ajar Valley. I'm sure all of that work has been wiped out.''
''In terms of wildlife, any progress toward protection has ceased because of the war.''
* Perhaps never in history has war so reduced an area's animal life as did the war in Uganda.
''The highest-known densities of large terrestrial mammals occur on the grasslands in western Uganda,'' a 1963 survey of the area boasted. That was before the rule of Idi Amin and the war of 1979-80.
In Ruwenzori National Park alone, ''occupying Tanzanian forces there machine-gunned 14,000 animals,'' says Karl Von Orsdol, an ecologist, in a 1980 International Wildlife article entitled ''I witnessed a massacre.'' Between 1972 and '80 the elephant population in that park dropped from 10,000 to 150.
Although political strife continues, the Uganda government, in cooperation with several international wildlife organizations, is taking steps to revive the country's park and game reserve system.
Six months ago Mr. Von Orsdol returned to Uganda for the first time since the war. ''The situation is so much better it's unbelievable. (It's) like looking at Germany in 1945, then looking at Germany today; it's incredible.''
The wildlife is coming back. A recent count showed that the elephant population in Ruwenzori Park had tripled since the war ended. Von Orsdol says, ''Some of the elephants may be coming across the border from Zaire. In fact, it's safer for them in Uganda now. (To protect the animals from poachers) the rangers have automatic weapons, aircraft support, and a new radio communication network, which never existed before the war.''
But perhaps the most important, and certainly the most poignant, sign of hope lies in Uganda's conservation education program.
Diana McMeacham at the African Wildlife Leadership Fund, returned to Uganda recently and visited the reconstructed headquarters of the Wildlife Clubs of Uganda. Stretching out before her were ''thousands and thousands of Ugandan children'' representing 30 schools from across the country. They had come to attend a national wildlife rally.
Ms. McMeacham recalls: ''They performed plays about the environment, heard talks, and sold various handicrafts to raise money. I'll never forget one song they sang repeatedly. It went: 'Poachers, no! no!,' while the crowd moved to a Watusi dance step.''
With the help of the Leadership Fund, wildlife clubs have been organized in schools all over East Africa. It is conservation education programs like these, says Ms. McMeacham, that could prevent future ''Uganda massacres.''
But the effect of war on wildlife is not always a damaging one.
Every winter since 1974, George Archibald, director of the ICF, has visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Korea. There, he has observed what has become one the world's most amazing wildlife sanctuaries.
''You have this tremendous feeling of rebirth or healing when you go there. It's like going into a time machine, imagining what Korea looked like before it was settled by man - a truly awe-inspiring experience.''
Writes David R. Zimmerman in a June Smithsonian magazine article on the DMZ: ''The whole wide valley - dozens of square miles of paddies and marshland - extends outward. . . . Even with our binoculars and spotting scope we see no other people in this vast area. But wildlife abounds.''
Although there are a few notable mammals there, the DMZ's true gems are its birds. Archibald lists some of them: mandarin duck, white egret, crested ibis, tens of thousands of geese, and, most important, about half the world's remaining populations of white-naped and Manchurian crane, and 150 red-crowned crane.
There are other examples of no man's lands - created by conflict - where wildlife flourishes.
On the border between India and China lies a high plateau, the Ladakh region of eastern Kashmir, where Indian and Chinese forces fought in 1963 and still skirmish occasionally.
Here, says Archibald, ''the whole ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau has been preserved, because the military forces have kept development and immigrants out.''
Consequently, he says, the entire Tibetan culture is intact, including village systems, Buddhism, and wildlife. The endangered kiang, or wild ass, and the very rare black-necked crane have also been found there.
Southern Sudan is another example of war benefiting wildlife. Bob Caputo, who trekked overland through the vast region from September 1980 until April '81, found that ''the long 17-year civil war kept everything from going on - no building, no roads; and it kept the poaching from escalating like it has in Kenya and Uganda.''
Since the fighting ceased, Caputo found that poaching has increased dramatically, wiping out the white rhinoceros in one park and destroying half the elephant population.
David Zimmerman, who traveled with George Archibald to the Korean DMZ, proposes that such areas be turned into permanent wildlife refuges. ''I think that is one way to obtain real estate for wildlife, without removing farms or factories.
''What more fitting a way to honor those who fell in combat.''
Ultimately, though, wildlife refuges are not an answer, says Dr. Norman Myers , an international wildlife consultant and author of numerous books on ecological issues. ''The time will come when an African government could post an armed guard at one-yard intervals around a game park and impoverished people would still get in to poach the animals for food and money.''
In the long run, he says, the only answer is to promote economic stability in third-world countries, where most wildlife still exists. Otherwise, he says, political and economic chaos will result in the destruction of the remaining animals.
Karl Von Orsdol points out that in Uganda, ''After the economy went from superb to rock bottom, it was not possible to survive legally. People who could exert power took advantage of the situation'' by paying the Tanzanian troops to poach. Poaching ''was no longer corruption, but survival.''
In the long term, claims Myers, the most harm to the environment comes not from war, but from the indirect effects of war: ''setbacks to agriculture, suspension of health and family planning programs, and diversion of financial resources from departments of wildlife and conservation to departments of defense.''
''A herd of wildebeest in the middle of a country where people are starving is of no more use than a patch of corn in Times Square.''
Says Ms. McMeacham, ''All we can hope for is some kind of intelligent use of the natural resources of our planet; which is why conservation education is so important.''