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Study: Drought, climate change will worsen conflicts with elephants

A mother elephant walks down a dirt road followed by a tiny baby elephant.
Charles J. Sharp/WikiCommons/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license
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African elephants in Zimbabwe

Elephants are an iconic species and the focus of many conservation efforts. But a new study out of Northern Arizona University says as the global climate warms, elephants will have to compete more often with humans for food and water, increasing the risk of conflict and dangerous encounters. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with one of the study’s authors, Duan Biggs, about the research.

So you research human-elephant conflicts, what got you interested in that question?

My research spans a wide range of issues of how conservation in protected areas play out in, effectively, the world we live in, which are social-ecological systems, interactive systems, of people and nature…. Elephants are—I was fortunate to grow up in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and elephants came into the village, where the staff lived… they came into our garden, they fed on the trees outside my bedroom window, which for me at that time was novel and exciting. There was an elephant in the garden just outside my bedroom window. The difference for many other people in southern Africa and elsewhere in Africa is that the elephants are feeding on their crops… and then it’s far more destructive.

How do you go about studying a question like this, it involved surveying local residents, is that right?

In that paper, it was more trying to understand how scenarios of potentially increasing drought which is expected under scenarios of climate change into the future…how does that relate to human-elephant conflict, in terms of access to resources, particularly water but also food… What our results showed is that as we potentially experienced increasing frequency and intensity of droughts in the future in that part of southern Africa, we will expect increased competition and conflict between elephants and humans, and that both humans and both humans and elephants will be more and more dependent and more concentrated on small pockets of resources, for food and for water.

What did your research show that could be done about this, what are some of the solutions?

So an important part of that is that you’ve got—similar to parts of the Western U.S. where there are conservationists who are excited about conserving wolves, verses ranchers or farmers who really don’t want wolves there, but these stakeholders or key groups are sharing the same landscape. And one of the key challenges is just being able to have the necessary dialogue, discussion, and negotiation, about how are we going to do this?... And so that’s part of what we’re doing. Another part is also building capacity in local community organizations, in local protected area authorities, to apply best practices for human elephant coexistence, that could be in terms of what should the fences look like, how should you chase an elephant away… And then a third part, which is very important and which some listeners may have seen in the media…. For example, in southern Africa, where the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area is, an important source of revenue for conservation and communities comes from hunting tourism… Particularly, I think something conservation is struggling with across the board, is how do we have meaningful conversations and dialogues around, for example, a group of stakeholders that live with elephants on the ground that feel hunting is appropriate, acceptable, and it’s a good way for them to earn an income from these often destructive animals that they live with. And then one has very vocal other groups of stakeholders that feel hunting is completely morally unacceptable. How does one have meaningful conversation and dialogue with that, because ultimately these animals depend on a piece of land where humans also live, and we need to find better ways of having meaningful dialogue toward finding more manageable, sustainable solutions.

Duan Biggs, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Great, thank you.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.