Across Africa, growing human and livestock populations, and the associated conversion of natural habitats into human-dominated landscapes, increasingly squeezes wildlife into smaller and more fragmented pockets of land, creating a large interface between human and wildlife populations. Interactions at this interface become ‘conflicts’ when animal behaviours and human activities are incompatible. Elephants are particularly prone to conflicts with humans… People that share space with elephants largely rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Elephant behaviours – such as crop raiding, causing damage to infrastructure, injuring or killing livestock and even people – reduce tolerance for elephants within local communities, who retaliate by injuring or killing elephants. Human-elephant conflict (HEC) is thus detrimental for both elephant and human populations, and has large implications for conservation, human welfare and the economy.
HEC has been relatively well studied – we have a good understanding of the underlying social, political and environmental factors – and there are lots of methods in place for reducing HEC. However, climate change (CC) is expected to alter the frequency, distribution and intensity of HEC. I recently wrote a report for WWF-UK examining how we think CC will alter HEC in southern and eastern Africa. Here are my findings…
First though, how is the climate of these regions projected to change in future? Honestly, the projections vary. There are many models (which make different assumptions about the interactions of the Earth’s components and human activities for example) and scenarios (which differ in the predicted timing of peak CO2 emissions) which ultimately create uncertainty in our projections. However, the general consensus is that rainfall in S&E Africa will become more erratic and the frequency of extreme events such as flooding and drought will increase.
So based on that, what are the implications for HEC?
The ecosystems shared by elephants and people in S&E Africa are heavily reliant on rain. Plant growth is limited by water, so that less rainfall will reduce plant biomass and more rainfall increases it. Many water sources too are directly fed by rainfall. Given that rain will increase in some areas and decline in others, we will see changes in the distribution of plant growth with some areas benefiting and others losing out. However, both drought and flooding reduces plant growth – drought through water limitation and flooding through water logging the soil – and so more of these events will reduce plant biomass wherever they occur.
The distribution and abundance of elephants is largely determined by food and water availability. As the abundance and distribution of these resources changes, elephants have two choices: 1) stay put in a potentially depleting ecosystem or 2) migrate in line with shifting resources. Whilst option 2 might seem sensible, due to the highly fragmented nature of Africa’s landscapes, migration may be limited by anthropogenic barriers (fences, roads, settlements etc) or by unsuitable habitats interspersing migrations paths. Where elephants have to stay put and resources decline, elephant body condition, reproduction and ultimately survival will be compromised.
The impact of CC on people, will depend on how CC affects agriculture. Agriculture in S&E Africa largely falls into two categories: pastoralism (rearing livestock) and crop farming. Traditionally, pastoralists have lived nomadic lifestyles, moving there livestock in line with resource availability. So as CC shifts the distribution of resources, ideally pastoralist too will move. However, the migration of people faces the same issues as that of elephants, with the added limitations of land ownership and service provision favoring sedentary lifestyles. But sedentarisation where resources are depleting will mean a decline in the condition of livestock with ultimate losses of animals and income. Crop farming too may suffer as regular production of crops relies on sufficient and timely rainfall, making crop failure more likely under future climate projections.
Initially, people will probably try to ‘stick-it-out’, persisting with agriculture despite changing climatic conditions. However, as agriculture becomes less reliable, people are increasingly likely to adopt alternative livelihoods. Some believe that this will lead to the mass urbanisation of the African human population and declining numbers of people sharing rural spaces with wildlife.
So how does this play out in terms of HEC?
In the short-term, stationary elephant and human populations may face declining resource availability and increased competition for remaining food and water. Competition at key resource points will lead to more interactions between elephants and people, and inevitably elevated levels of HEC. At the same time, declining elephant body condition may increase risky behaviours such as crop raiding (as the potential benefits outweigh the risks), while people experiencing crop raiding will be less tolerant and more likely to retaliate as losses incur greater consequences.
Where elephants attempt to migrate, whilst this may relieve previous locations of HEC, elephants are likely to move through human-dominated landscapes (farmland, roads, railways, settlements) where they will encounter people, likely causing conflict. New sources of HEC may also emerge as elephants occupy new locations and people in these areas are not used to sharing space with elephants.
Longer-term though, as elephant populations decline and we see mass urbanisation of the human population, the number of competitors sharing resources drops, reducing HEC. But honestly, at this point, I think we will having bigger problems to deal with…
What we still don’t know is where exactly HEC will get worse. This will require an extensive multidisciplinary modelling effort by experts working in climate change, plant biology, elephant behaviour and human behaviour… Anyone up for it?
Mitigating against increased HEC due to CC will rely on A) ensuring there is sufficient space for elephants to migrate in line with resources without human interference and B) supporting alternative and resilient livelihoods for people so that they may benefit from sharing space with elephants. This will require huge sources of funding, landscape-scale land planning and international cooperation between NGOs, governments and people. A BIG ask, but check out these amazing organisations that are already working towards this:
So in summary, changes in the frequency and distribution of HEC is expected to occur as a result of CC in S&E Africa. Locally, some areas will experience a release from HEC whilst others will see an increase and novel sources of conflict occur. Overall, HEC is likely to get worse before it gets better, and when HEC begins to subside, we are likely to have bigger issues to deal with.
If you want to read the full report, find it here: CC & HEC Report