You probably know that elephants are endangered and that they are threatened by poachers seeking to sell their ivory. But did you know that in some places, like Kenya, more elephants are now killed by climate change than by poaching? Here are five ways climate change is affecting both Asian and African elephants, and one surprising way elephants play a critical role in fighting climate change.
1. Rising Temperatures Threaten Elephant Survival
One of the most direct ways climate change is affecting elephants is simply through rising temperatures. Despite living in hot environments, elephants are actually very sensitive to heat. For example, one study in Myanmar found that the temperature at which Asian elephants are most likely to thrive is a mere 23 degrees Celsius (73.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Rising above that optimum temperature places elephants at risk.
Indeed, that same study found the risk of death in Asian elephant calves under the age of five nearly doubles on hot days, in comparison to days spent around the optimum temperature of 23 degrees Celsius. But the effect is not limited to calves. Elephants cannot sweat and must depend on vasodilation—the widening of blood vessels—flapping their ears, moving to shade, swimming, and spraying their bodies with mud and water in order to cool down. Today, heat stroke is a leading cause of death among Asian elephants in Myanmar. And experts predict that without intervention, the 0.1% to 3% temperature increase Myanmar is expected to experience in the next three to four decades may drive Asian elephants over the brink to extinction.
Increasing temperatures are also decimating elephant habitats. And this, in turn, affects how well elephants are able to regulate their temperatures. Scientists now expect African elephants in Zimbabwe to lose 40% of their habitat by 2050 due to rising temperatures. Similarly, Asian elephants are expected to lose 45.71% of their suitable habitat in the same time period. And because elephants must travel to find shade, water, and adequate places to rest in order to cool down, this loss of suitable habitat may prevent them from accessing the resources they need to thermoregulate and avoid heat stroke.
2. Elephants Do Not Have Enough Water
Full grown elephants drink over 50 gallons of water every day, so the water scarcity that comes along with climate change is a serious problem for them. This is particularly evident in Kenya, where 36,000 African elephants live. The country is currently experiencing its worst drought on record. The drought has lasted more than four years so far, as Kenya enters its fifth dry season.
Kenya has made progress in fighting the ivory trade, but officials have now realized that investing solely in fighting the ivory and illegal wildlife trades left them without the resources they need to protect elephants from climate change. In the span of one year, 179 African elephants died due to the drought. Fewer than 10 were poached in that same period.
Droughts are increasing in both frequency and duration in Southern African countries like Zimbabwe as well. The area has been hit particularly hard by weather patterns like El Nino, which disrupt rainfall patterns and make the rainy seasons unreliable. The weather has become so volatile that in 2019 alone, floods and high winds from Tropical Cyclone Idai killed hundreds of people in Zimbabwe, while 200 African elephants died from drought during the same year.
Crucially, scientists recently learned that African savanna elephants can lose up to 10% of the water in their bodies in one day when the weather is hot. That massive daily water loss, equivalent to two full bathtubs of water, is the largest ever documented among land animals. If elephants do not drink at least every two or three days, they may succumb to dehydration. And as temperatures continue to soar due to climate change, elephants will require more water in order to survive. Without help, however, they are unlikely to find it. The increased temperatures and prolonged droughts will continue to turn watering holes into parched land and kill the water-rich plants elephants rely on.
Water scarcity also has far-reaching implications for elephants beyond dehydration. When elephants do not have enough to drink, they are more likely to miscarry or produce too little milk. And the calves who are born are less likely to survive. Importantly, elephants reproduce later in life, often having their first calves in their teens. Female elephants also have long reproductive cycles, remaining pregnant for nearly two years and having a baby only once every four to five years. With all 3 species of elephants currently endangered (and African Forest Elephants critically endangered), it is essential that calves live to reproductive age if elephants are to be saved.
3. Elephants Are Losing Their Food
Like water, food is becoming scarce for elephants due to climate change. And as herbivores, elephants need to eat huge quantities of food every day in order to survive. For example, African forest elephants eat as much as 450 kilograms (992 pounds) of vegetation each day! So you can imagine how serious it is when elephant food sources are harmed by climate change.
In Gabon, fruit production within Lopé National Park plummeted by 81% between 1986 and 2018. As a result, the African forest elephants living there have experienced an 11% reduction in body condition since 2008. Some have visible bones. Fruit and seeds are the most calorie-packed foods in the elephants’ diet, but there is no longer enough fruit to sustain them. African forest elephants now must search over 50 trees on average in order to find one with ripe fruit.
Lopé National Park has recently experienced an increase in nighttime temperatures of about 1 degree Celsius, which is significant because some species of trees rely on a drop in nighttime temperatures in order to flower and produce fruit. When temperatures are too warm, the trees do not produce fruit at all.
Some species of trees also depend on elephants to disperse their seeds. In fact, one tree, the Omphalocarpum procerum, produces donut-shaped fruits that cannot be eaten by any species other than African forest elephants due to their extremely hard shell. When climate change enters these delicate relationships, a vicious cycle develops. The African forest elephants have less food, which means they disperse fewer seeds, leading to a lower food supply in the future.
4. These Pressures Have Changed Elephant Migration Patterns
Elephants traditionally follow familiar routes, visiting the same areas year after year when the fruit is ripe. But the scarcity of available food and water has led elephants to wander farther away from their regular habitat in search of ripe fruit and fresh water. Habitat fragmentation is a major barrier to their search.
Although two-thirds of the land in Africa could function as elephant habitat, only 17% of that number is actually accessible to the elephants. And in Asia, pressure from humans and climate change are expected to lead to the loss of 42% of all elephant habitat if steps aren’t taken to intervene. Additionally, as elephants roam in search of food and water, their geographic distribution is also changing.
You may recall news headlines in 2019 when a herd of Asian elephants journeyed hundreds of miles across China. Although scientists are not certain what caused the elephants to leave their habitat, they suspect that it was due to scarcity in resources like food and water. If climate change continues unchecked, it is possible we may see more of these extreme cases as elephants attempt to find the resources they need to survive.
5. Human-Elephant Conflicts Are Becoming More Frequent
Competition for resources is increasingly leading to human-elephant conflict. When elephants can no longer find enough food and water in their natural habitats, they begin to stray into human territory. Incidents of African forest elephants stealing food from gardens is now commonplace, and they often demolish entire plantations. Although villagers understand the important role elephants play in dispersing seeds for trees like the moabi, which is used to make cooking oil, they are understandably upset at losing their own food to the elephants.
Older villagers in both Gabon and Zimbabwe report that when they were young, African elephants stayed away from the villages and were rarely seen. Now, they are a constant problem for villagers trying to feed their families.
At times, the conflict between humans and elephants over scarce resources becomes deadly. Both humans and elephants have been killed. In Zimbabwe, the government has considered culling elephants in order to reduce human injuries and deaths. However, such measures would be disastrous to the already endangered African elephants.
In many areas, severe drought has imperiled both humans and elephants, and solutions must be found to help both. Some experts have suggested that boreholes be drilled for African elephants to use deep within the parks, while watering holes at the border with human settlements should be closed to discourage elephants from entering the villages. This would, in theory, both supply African elephants with needed water during droughts and draw them further into the parks, where they are less likely to come into conflict with humans.
6. Elephants Help Fight Climate Change
Climate change and elephants are intimately connected. Indeed, it may surprise you to learn that elephants themselves help fight climate change. As a keystone species, the entire forest depends on elephants for survival. They play a critical role in clearing paths through the forest and dispersing seeds through their dung.
As elephants move about in search of food, they eat or crush small plants and trees, leaving the larger, slow-growing trees to survive. The remaining trees also have denser wood than is found in forests without elephants. This allows the rainforests, where some elephant species live, to play a crucial role as carbon sinks. The large, tall trees store carbon high above the ground and are able to sequester a huge amount of it.
In fact, it’s estimated that just one elephant can increase the amount of carbon captured by the rainforest by a stunning 9,500 metric tons per square kilometer. To put that into perspective, it’s around the amount generated by over 2,000 cars in a year! However, without elephants, forests will have a difficult time recovering from climate change. By some estimates, if African forest elephants were to go extinct, 7% of carbon stores within the forest would be lost. That’s equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide emissions generated by nearly 3,000 coal-fired power plants each year!
Elephants are so crucial to carbon sequestration that recent economic research placed an economic value of $1.75 million on each African forest elephant. Lead researcher Ralph Chami argues that in light of their value, efforts should be made to pay villagers to protect the elephants. And he states that doing so would remove the incentive to engage in poaching. Instead, local villagers would directly benefit from protecting the elephants. However, no such initiative has yet been implemented.
WildAid Is Helping to Fight Climate Change
Climate change is quickly becoming the number one threat to elephants and other wildlife species across the globe. WildAid recently launched a US campaign to inspire individuals to overcome eco-anxiety and other obstacles that prevent them from making necessary lifestyle changes to combat climate change. We want everyone to know that they have the power to make a difference for elephants and other endangered species. This campaign shows you how.
And in September, 2022, we partnered with China Green Carbon Foundation to launch the “Every Climate Action Counts” campaign. This campaign, which is supported by China Environment News Agency, inspires individuals to take simple actions to reduce climate change. The campaign features celebrity actor and cycling enthusiast Wu Lei (Leo), who shared his climate action and invited his followers to do the same on social media. The campaign materials were viewed over 57 million times on social media within a week of launching!
You Can Help, Too!
At WildAid we strongly believe that every person has the power to make an impact. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2050, 40% to 70% of all emissions could be eliminated through demand-side strategies. That means you have the power to help cut emissions by lowering demand. It’s as simple as reducing your own carbon footprint and encouraging others to do the same.
So try cycling like Wu Lei instead of driving a car, or walk instead of riding the bus. Lower your thermostat a few degrees in the winter, and keep your house a little warmer in the summer. Or try cutting back on meat consumption and have some tasty vegetarian meals instead. Every effort adds up, so find your own climate action and do your part to reduce climate change. We all have the power to make a difference.
Want more suggestions on how you can help protect elephants by fighting climate change? Check out our resources here!
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WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to protect wildlife from illegal trade and other imminent threats. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $308 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too.
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