African elephants are under increasing threats from human actions, poaching the most recognised, but anthropogenic climate change is also an increasing threat.
Sub-Saharan Africa, the range of African elephants, is projected to get hotter under climate change, with more and more frequent heat extremes expected during summer months. Most climate change projections indicate an increase in rainfall for eastern Africa, while southern and western Africa may see a decrease. However, there is significant uncertainty in rainfall projections, but what is known though, and is already evident, is that rainfall will become increasingly erratic and less reliable. This has impacts for both people and wildlife.
African elephants can and do live in a variety of habitats, across 37 countries, ranging from tropical to arid, humid to dry. They feed on a variety of foods. These attributes make them fairly resilient to a changing climate, however they are sensitive to high temperatures and are susceptible to heat stress as well as sunburn, and need a great deal of fresh water each day. Thus, increased heat and less reliable water availability will be problematic for them.
Rainfall important for reproduction
Erratic rainfall patterns will have an impact on the elephants’ reproduction rate, which is linked to rainfall, with birth peaks coinciding with rainfall peaks. During droughts, elephants have less access to required amounts of food as there is less vegetation available, thus females are not always able to be in optimal breeding condition. This reduces ability to reproduce. The long reproduction rate of elephants also reduces their resilience to climate change and ability to adapt to a changing climate, having a gestation period of 22 months, and 4-6 years between calves.
Elephants require 150-300 litres of water per day for drinking, bathing and play. And droughts can also affect populations by increasing mortality or by reducing reproduction. This does not necessarily affect the desert-adapted elephant of northern Namibia, which over years have adapted to extreme aridity of their environment. However, even they suffer during prolonged droughts, as is currently being experienced now.
Human activity further increase the elephants’ vulnerability
But, on top of these environmental effects, we – humans – are one of the greatest threats to the ability of the African elephant to adapt to climate change. Development – settlements and infrastructure – cause habitat fragmentation limiting the ability of elephants to move to find food and water and creating separate populations thereby limiting the gene pool. Humans increasingly encroach on elephants, and other wildlife habitat, reducing the amount of land and other resources for elephants to live.
While the African elephant population is currently around 480 000, the increased incidences of poaching are also major threat to the species, as it will reduce the population and thus the resilience of the species to withstand climate shocks.
Another critical threat to elephants is the impact of climate change on humans. A changing climate can increase conflict between humans and elephants, as they compete for land, water and other natural resources. Climate change may cause humans to change their living patterns and livelihoods. For example, increased flooding can cause people to move and establish new settlements in elephant habitat. Drought may equally cause people to migrate to other areas in search of food, fodder and water for themselves and their livestock. People may be forced to increase the land under agriculture and their crop yields decrease, again reducing land and often access to vegetation and water for elephants.
WWF is working to help elephants cope with climate change
There are a number of measures which can be taken to assist elephants to cope with a changing climate. These include safeguarding access for elephants to water sources, either natural or artificial if necessary.
Elephants need space in which to roam, seeing food and water and to retain connection of populations. Thus securing and increasing the land available for elephants and the ability of elephants to move between such areas, within countries and across countries, is required.
WWF is supporting such endeavours in countries in southern and east Africa through initiatives such as community conservation, in which rural communities receive benefits from managing wildlife on their land. This gives the communities incentives for allowing wildlife to live there. WWF also supports transboundary initiatives, such as the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. It spans five countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) with the aim to improve community livelihoods through nature-based activities, but also to enable elephants to migrate between these countries safely. WWF is working with the government of these five countries to develop this initiative.
Stop the illegal wildlife trade
Importantly, it is necessary to reduce the pressures on elephants from other, non-climatic threats such as human activity, many of which are likely exacerbated by climate change, by increasing the ability of humans to manage the effects of climate change. This includes supporting communities to improve their agriculture practices through conservation agriculture as is being done in southern Zambia with WWF support. Work with communities to undertake land use planning, which makes space for their activities, including livestock and agriculture, as well as for elephants and other wildlife. Support communities livelihood activities to enable them to cope with climate impacts, such as assisting in rangeland management to conserve fodder for livestock.
Critically, poaching and the illegal wildlife trade needs to be stopped, otherwise this will reduce the population of elephants significantly and thus their ability to cope with a changing climate.