Throughout history, humanity has frequently engaged in conflicts with other peoples and nations, yet a surprising number of instances have emerged where animals became the unintended combatants.
The reasons behind animals becoming entangled in human strife are diverse. Sometimes their habitats intersect with battlefields, leading them to become inadvertent participants, or they are targeted for retribution against local populations. In certain cases, animals are labeled as nuisances, prompting their inclusion in the conflict.
Across time, there have been both victories and losses for animals in these struggles. However, whenever a native species faces undue persecution and significant casualties, it inevitably triggers imbalances that sow the seeds of future problems. Remarkably, even with the wisdom gained from past clashes involving various species across the globe, humans still find themselves in conflict with animals, displaying a persistence that disregards the lessons learned.
10. The “Four Pests” campaign
Mao Zedong’s tenure as ruler of China from 1949 to 1976 was marked by a notable disregard for the environment. Throughout this period, his rallying cry, “Man Must Conquer Nature,” epitomized his Great Leap Forward initiative.
In addition to initiatives that resulted in deforestation and alterations in agricultural practices, one particularly drastic measure was the “Four Pests” campaign. Targeting flies, mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows, this campaign involved mass extermination of sparrows. However, this action disrupted the ecological equilibrium, as sparrows played a crucial role in pest management. Consequently, this disruption rendered crops susceptible to pests like locusts, contributing to a catastrophic famine that claimed the lives of millions.
Opponents of these policies were subjected to severe persecution. For instance, hydro-engineer Huang Wanli was sent to a labor camp for expressing dissent against a dam project. Even after the eventual dissolution of the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s, agricultural workers were coerced into prioritizing grain production, leading to further environmental degradation and enduring hardships for the Chinese populace.
9. The Battle of Ramree Island
During World War II, Ramree Island, situated off the coast of Burma (now Myanmar), bore witness to numerous military conflicts. Yet, in 1945, the most harrowing episode unfolded when British forces compelled nearly 1,000 Japanese enemy soldiers into the dense mangrove swamp spanning 10 miles (16 kilometers) across Ramree.
Regrettably for them, this mangrove thicket was inhabited by saltwater crocodiles, the planet’s largest reptilian predators. Some individuals of this species attain lengths exceeding 20 feet (6 meters) and weights surpassing 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms), rendering even moderately-sized crocodiles formidable adversaries capable of overpowering adult humans.
Approximately 500 Japanese soldiers are believed to have escaped the swamp, with 20 eventually being recaptured. Tragically, around 500 are presumed to have fallen prey to the crocodiles. Survivors recounted harrowing narratives of crocodiles emerging unexpectedly to seize their victims.
This chilling event has earned recognition in Guinness World Records as the “Most Number of Fatalities in a Crocodile Attack,” although the exact figures remain a topic of debate.
8. The Buffalo War
In 1871, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and a group of affluent individuals from New York embarked on a bison-hunting expedition in Nebraska. This endeavor was also aligned with the United States Army’s objective to exert control over Native American populations by eradicating bison, which were vital to their sustenance. One colonel was quoted as stating, “Eliminate every buffalo you encounter! Each deceased buffalo equates to one less Indian.”
This systematic destruction was employed as a means of manipulating Native Americans and coercing them onto reservations. The economic downturn of 1873 prompted an influx of buffalo hunters who killed the animals for profit. The sheer number of slaughtered buffalo led to the accumulation of their hides in towns, flooding the market with an excess of what was once a precious resource.
The buffalo population saw a precipitous decline, and by the close of the 19th century, only a small number remained in the wild. While preservation efforts were initiated in the 1870s, President Ulysses S. Grant declined to endorse a bill safeguarding these creatures. The government later supplied cattle to certain tribes as a substitute for the lost animals.
The recent designation of the American bison as the national mammal serves as a testament to the animal’s historical significance.
7. The Great Emu War
In 1932, farmers in Western Australia were already grappling with the hardships brought on by the aftermath of the Great Depression. However, their challenges escalated when around 20,000 emus migrated inland during their breeding season. Faced with crop damage, Australia declared a campaign against the emus, prompting the deployment of soldiers armed with machine guns. Despite multiple engagements, the emus emerged as resilient adversaries, eluding a decisive victory by the human forces.
As of today, emus continue to thrive in regions beyond Perth, their triumph in this unusual “war” serving as the inspiration for an upcoming action-comedy film currently in development.
6. The War on Wolves
The war against wolves in the United States has extended since the 19th century, driven by the aim of curbing their predation on livestock. In 1905, the federal government even resorted to biological warfare by introducing mange into wolf populations. A decade later, Congress enacted a law mandating the elimination of wolves from federal territories. By 1926, all wolves in Yellowstone National Park were eradicated through poisoning, shooting, and trapping.
During the 20th century, endeavors were launched to rejuvenate wolf numbers through reintroduction programs, while the Endangered Species Act (ESA) granted them federal protection. Nevertheless, these conservation initiatives have encountered resistance from select ranchers, hunters, and landowners who remain concerned about the perceived threats posed by wolves to agriculture and game populations.
Consequently, contentious discussions, legal clashes, and conflicting state and federal policies have unfolded regarding wolf management, including the selective removal of ESA safeguards in specific regions. What began as a historical war against wolves in the United States has evolved into a present-day conflict between conservationists striving to safeguard and rehabilitate wolf populations and stakeholders with competing interests, harboring apprehensions and aspirations to mitigate their presence.
5. The Beaver Wars
The Beaver Wars were a sequence of conflicts that unfolded in colonial America during the 17th century. These clashes revolved around the contest for supremacy in the profitable fur trade, involving a dynamic interplay between various Native American tribes, French colonists, and European traders. The possession of valuable beavers and their pelts equated to a significant economic advantage.
Among the contenders, the Iroquois Confederation, a coalition of multiple tribes, emerged as a prevailing force. They secured control over the fur trade, vanquished rival tribes, and instigated assaults on French settlements. In response, the French, in alliance with Native American groups, launched counterattacks on Iroquois villages and English colonies. Stretching across almost a century, these conflicts eventually concluded with the Peace of Montreal treaty in 1701, which marked the termination of the Beaver Wars.
4. Roman Venationes
Venationes, a term derived from the Latin language denoting “animal hunts,” were a widely embraced form of entertainment in ancient Rome. Hosted within amphitheaters, these spectacles featured confrontations either among animals or between humans and beasts. Typically, participants comprised captives, criminals, or skilled animal hunters.
Emerging in the 2nd century BC as a component of the circus games, venationes garnered immense popularity, so much so that Roman General Julius Caesar erected the inaugural wooden amphitheater exclusively for their exhibition. The demand soared to such heights that creatures like lions, bears, bulls, hippos, panthers, and crocodiles were sourced globally to be presented and sacrificed during public festivities. The numbers swelled to the extent that up to 11,000 animals were showcased and dispatched.
Even following the discontinuation of gladiator shows in the 5th century, these displays continued to persist. Representations of venationes can be unearthed on coins, mosaics, and tombs from that era, underscoring their profound significance within Roman cultural traditions.
3. The Elephant Soldiers in the Battle of Zama
The Battle of Zama, transpiring in 202 BC, bore witness to the Romans, led by Scipio Africanus the Elder, locking horns with the Carthaginians under the command of Hannibal. This historic encounter marked the conclusive chapter of the Second Punic War.
Hannibal marshaled his forces, heavily reliant on 80 war elephants—animals not entirely acclimated to warfare—and Carthaginian conscripts possessing limited battle exposure. Upon unleashing these colossal creatures upon the Roman infantry, Scipio orchestrated a strategic array of nimble and compact infantry units, referred to as maniples, interspersed with vacant spaces. This shrewd maneuver permitted Roman soldiers to adeptly evade the charging elephants.
The resounding cacophony of Roman cries and blaring trumpets is believed to have thrown the elephants into confusion, leading some to stray from their intended path and inadvertently assail their own troops. By adroitly neutralizing the elephant charge, the Romans secured a pivotal upper hand in the Battle of Zama, an advantage that substantively contributed to their ultimate triumph. Their victory signified the termination of Hannibal’s dominion over Carthaginian forces and inflicted substantial impairment upon Carthage’s capacity to withstand the might of Rome.
2. The Australian “Mouse Plague”
In 2021, Australia confronted one of the most severe mouse plagues in recent memory, resulting in extensive crop destruction and pervasive infestations. This outbreak was attributed to favorable climatic conditions that fostered an overabundance of food, following a period marked by drought and devastating bushfires.
The house mouse, introduced to Australia during the late 1700s, has consistently posed a threat to indigenous species, engaging in resource competition with them.
The economic toll of this plague was estimated at approximately AU$1 billion, prompting governmental financial assistance and prompting the exploration of strategies like gene editing to mitigate their numbers. Although this plague subsided by the close of 2021, a word of caution prevails, reminding people not to become complacent, as a recurrence remains a possibility.
1. The Bear Soldier in the Battle of Monte Cassino
In the backdrop of World War II, an orphaned Syrian brown bear named Wojtek forged an improbable companionship with the Polish II Corps, his existence often hidden from those he fought alongside. Raised by the soldiers, Wojtek embarked on a journey alongside them, traversing the Middle East and eventually arriving in Italy. Despite the initial challenges of having a bear as part of their ranks, he was formally enlisted as “Private Wojtek,” earning official membership within the regiment.
Wojtek swiftly captured the hearts of his fellow soldiers, actively participating in their endeavors. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, he even lent his assistance by aiding in the transport of ammunition. Such contributions garnered admiration to the extent that he was promoted to the rank of corporal.
Following the war’s conclusion, Wojtek accompanied his comrades to Scotland, where he found a home on a farm and became an adored presence within the community. Engaging in events, making television appearances, he enjoyed a peaceful existence until his passing in 1963.
Wojtek’s extraordinary tale has been immortalized through various mediums like films, literature, and statues, both in Poland and Britain. His service stands as a poignant testament to the enduring connection between humans and animals, particularly during times of adversity.