March 1, 2024

African elephants are being crushed by climate change, causing cascading effects on their herds

The elephant community living in Africa’s Great Virunga Landscape (GVL) once thrived there. During several surveys in the 1960s and 1970s, scientists discovered that specific sites within the GVL, such as the Queen Elizabeth Protected Area and Virguna National Park, had between 1,300 and 4,000 individuals.

But starting in the 1990s, elephant numbers began to decline precipitously thanks to human activity, such as land use, political conflicts and poaching. Today, African elephants across the continent are listed as endangered, and the highly intelligent animals appear to be aware, on some level, that humans are to blame for their plight. Elephants have been reported to have fled from other areas where there was intense poaching into the relative safety of the GVL, causing the population to increase.

“There is indisputable evidence that the population of Queen Elizabeth National Park increased from 150 individuals to 2,950 in 2006, over 25 years, an increase that could not have been achieved by births alone,” scientists reported in a recent study for the journal PLOS Sustainability. and Transformation. But they notice a growing threat to elephant survival that they cannot escape: climate change.

Furthermore, these effects are not felt uniformly among elephants, with older individuals suffering more than younger ones. A big factor is deforestation, which prevents elephants from cooling off in the increasing heat. But many of these areas are being destroyed by fires and commercial plantations such as sugar, tobacco, palm oil and cocoa.

Elephants are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because, in these strongly matriarchal societies, older cows accumulate wisdom that they share with their young.

“Climate change is observed to affect older elephants more than young ones in terms of their ability to survive and migrate,” write study co-authors Simon Nampindo of the Wildlife Conservation Society Uganda and Timothy O. Randhir of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “It is also likely that the undetected direct impact of climate change on the elephant population is due to changes in habitats, particularly forests and wetlands used for thermal regulation.”

To determine this, Nampindo and Randhir built a dynamic systems model that incorporated data on elephant populations, landscape changes throughout history, and a wide range of future climate change scenarios over the next 80 years. The data was applied to elephants according to age groups: under 10 years old, 11 to 30, 31 to 40, 41 to 50 and over 50 years old.

It is significant that elderly elephants are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because, in these strongly matriarchal societies, older cows accumulate a form of wisdom that they share with their young. Like many animals, elephants have a form of culture and even mourn their dead. Just as a human family suffers irreparable loss when its elders die too soon, entire elephant populations will be left leaderless and emotionally devastated as their wise matriarchs die prematurely.

“If they are lost to climate change, it will wreak havoc on surviving and younger herds, as well as alter genetic profiles and herd structures,” Nampindo said in a statement accompanying the study.

GVL itself depends on these African elephants. Covering 15,700 square kilometers in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and including seven national parks, three highland rainforest reserves and three wildlife reserves (three of which are World Heritage Sites), the GVL includes a wide variety of animals , including hippos, chimpanzees, gorillas, lions, leopards, pangolins, pigs and crocodiles. There are also thousands of species of plants and hundreds of types of birds, and all of these organisms depend in various ways on African elephants. Pachyderm manure enriches the soil where plants grow; Likewise, while feeding and carrying out their daily tasks, elephants knock down trees and disperse seeds.

However, as aging elephants struggle with wetter and hotter conditions in the GVL caused by climate change, their decline will impact the entire African elephant population and, with it, the GVL ecosystem. If there is any good news in the recent study, it is that this calamity can be avoided by the same means it was caused – through human intervention.

“The results of our study reinforce the need to protect and maintain wildlife corridors and restore degraded forests and savannas to ensure elephant adaptability to climate change,” the authors write. “Habitat quality and conditions are essential for elephant survival, providing a reliable and sustainable source of food, water and shelter for thermal regulation.”


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They “show a lot of interest in the tusks of dead elephants and will repeatedly return to dead elephants or relatives, dead relatives, and come towards them.”

Last year, Salon spoke to Dr. Paula Kahumbu, CEO of the charity Wildlife Direct and one of the world’s leading elephant experts, who has spent years studying the animals in the wild. After describing how elephants have a powerful sense of smell and identify each other through scents, she added that this helps explain how they “detect the identity of a dead elephant.”

She then elaborated on how elephants suffer, describing how they “show a lot of interest in the tusks of dead elephants, and they will repeatedly return to the elephants or dead relatives, dead relatives, and come towards them. They will touch them, feel them .If an elephant has recently died or is dying, they will even try to breed it, or they will stay put and just be left with a dying elephant.

Kahumbu added: “After an elephant dies, sometimes they even cover it with bushes. It’s a really peculiar thing. We don’t really understand it, to be honest.”

Other studies on animal intelligence have found that elephants in zoos respond positively to the presence of humans (probably due to their intellect), that they have names for each other, and that they provide support to sick or injured members of the herd. If humans want to keep these sensitive and caring animals alive, says the PLOS Sustainability and Transformation article, then they will have to work together in constructive ways that recognize scientific facts.

“Elephant conservation requires a transboundary management approach to climate change mitigation, cooperation between conservation agencies, and effective partnerships with all conservation-relevant stakeholders,” the authors conclude.

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