Almost 250 kilometres in length, four kilometres in width, and bristling with weaponry on either side, the Korean De-militarized Zone (DMZ) marks the uneasy border between North and South Korea. This narrow strip of land encompassed by barbed wire and dotted with landmines is for all intents and purposes devoid of human life. It is not, however, the barren warzone that one might imagine; the soldiers patrolling its borders are serenaded by the calls of a plethora of rare bird species sparse elsewhere in the region, while rumours abound of the ghostly roars of long lost apex-predators. In the absence of human activity, nature has healed its wounds and fought back to turn the DMZ into an ecological paradise.
The DMZ was created in 1953 as an attempt to maintain an armistice between the two warring Koreas. Much of the peninsula had been ravaged by intensive agriculture, industrialisation and military movements—a study in 1994 revealed the dire truth: nearly half of the peninsula’s mammals, reptiles and amphibians were endangered. However, since the establishment of the DMZ, the lack of human activity has produced the perfect conditions for wildlife to regain territory and flourish in this unlikely safe haven, becoming one of the best-preserved habitats in the world.
Being long and narrow aids the DMZ’s bio-diversity by stretching across a wide range of habitats. Such diversity allows the region to provide for a huge range of rare species from across the animal, plant and fungal kingdoms. An important symbol of Asian artistic culture, the red-crowned crane is just one of the species that has gained a foothold within the DMZ, seemingly halting its downward spiral to extinction in the region, while the critically endangered Asian Black Bear has managed to evade persecution for their fur and gall bladders, used in traditional Chinese medicine. There are even reports of the elusive Amur leopard and Siberian tiger inhabiting the region, though these remain unconfirmed.
In total, 2900 plant species, 70 types of mammals and 320 species of birds have been identified by ecologists as finding refuge from the destructive influences of man in the DMZ.
However, the future of this biological utopia is far from assured; the Koreas are still technically at war and the armistice in place is far from stable, with both sides consistently antagonising the other. There have been numerous incursions by both sides into the DMZ, resulting in the deaths of more than 700 soldiers. Since 1974 South Korea has discovered four tunnels spanning the entire DMZ, through which they believe the North could be planning to invade. Lying between two heavily armed nations, the future of wildlife in the area is uncertain in the event of the outbreak of war, although it is not hard to imagine the repercussions of a major conflict complete—complete destruction.
Even the agreement of a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula does not guarantee the ecology of this unique area, as there would be no need for this strip to continue in its current undisturbed state. South Korea has expressed interest in establishing the area as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve but such moves have been met with opposition from the North. However, there is hope. Two projects attempting to safeguard the biodiversity have proven successful. Both have established large conservation areas in key resting grounds for over 1000 white-naped and red-crowned cranes. These projects bring together scientists from both sides of the wire, a rare example of placing hostilities aside in pursuit of conservation, perhaps a shred of hope for a better future for the unsettled region.
But in the short term, the continuance of the uneasy armistice ironically appears to be the best chance for the multitude of animals that rely on the DMZ as an island of protection against the rising tide of human in influence that threatens to submerge the world.