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Human-elephant conflict will escalate with climate change 

The delicate balance between wildlife and human coexistence is facing an unprecedented threat, with the risks for conflict between elephants and humans poised to escalate due to climate change and other anthropogenic environmental factors. 

This alarming trend is highlighted in a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study is the first of its kind to explore the impact of rising temperatures on interactions between humans and elephants.

Study significance 

“Human-wildlife conflict can have detrimental effects on both people and wildlife and can lead to setbacks in conservation efforts,” wrote the study authors. 

“Understanding how conflict risk is likely to shift under a changing climate as agriculture and human populations expand can better allow conservationists and wildlife managers to allocate mitigation and conservation resources for conflict-prone species and regions.”

“To date, little work has been done to anticipate how conflict risk with different species may change in intensity and spatial distribution as human populations expand and climate change impacts intensify.” 

“This analysis examines how projected climate change impacts, shifts in agricultural footprint, and changes in human population density may affect the distribution and intensity of conflict with two large, endangered, and conflict-prone species: Asian and African elephants.”

Mapping the risk

The researchers mapped the risk of human-elephant conflict across various elephant habitats. Their findings paint a concerning picture: as temperatures continue to rise and human encroachment into elephant habitats increases, the likelihood of conflicts is expected to surge. 

This situation represents a significant challenge in the management of human-wildlife interactions, with implications for both species’ survival and well-being.

Human-elephant conflict

Mia Guarnieri, a renowned wildlife biologist and the lead researcher of the paper, offered insights in an interview with ABC News. She defined human-elephant conflict as interactions that yield negative outcomes for either party involved. A prime example of this is crop raiding, where elephants consume crops, leading to retaliatory killings by farmers. 

“The largest outcome that we noticed was that there is a net increase in conflict risk for both of these species as climate change progresses and that increase was greater under the scenario that had higher emissions and higher barriers to to conservation work,” Guarnieri told ABC News.

Agricultural intersections and consequences

Agriculture, particularly farms cultivating corn or millet seed – some of elephants’ favorite crops – lies at the heart of many such conflicts. Guarnieri pointed out that the dire consequences of crop raiding include the loss of life among elephants and significant impacts on farmers’ livelihoods. 

Human-elephant conflict not only results in immediate physical and economic harm but also undermines local conservation efforts. These efforts are critical for a species that has suffered dramatic population declines over recent decades due to habitat loss and the ivory trade.

Behavioral responses to climate pressures

The study also sheds light on how elephants, known for their behavioral complexity, respond to various climate pressures such as water availability. These changes affect their movement, changing the corridors they take, noted study co-author Patrick Roehrdanz.

Such behavioral adaptations can lead to increased encounters with human populations, further escalating conflict risks.

Geographical hotspots and future expansion

“Effectively addressing conflict requires an understanding of where it is likely to occur, particularly as climate change shifts wildlife ranges and human activities globally,” wrote the study authors. 

“Here, we examine how projected shifts in cropland density, human population density, and climatic suitability – three key drivers of human–elephant conflict – will shift conflict pressures for endangered Asian and African elephants to inform conflict management in a changing climate.”

The experts identified specific regions where human-elephant conflicts are most prevalent: clusters in east-central Africa for African elephants and India for Asian elephants. Guarnieri anticipates an expansion of conflict risk along the northern border of the Asian elephants’ range, influenced by human restrictions on their habitat. 

“Our findings suggest that as climate changes, the risk of conflict with Asian and African elephants may shift and increase and managers should proactively mitigate that conflict to preserve these charismatic animals,” concluded the researchers.

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