How Weather, Land, and People Affect Conflicts with Elephants

Jenn Hoskins
30th January, 2024

How Weather, Land, and People Affect Conflicts with Elephants

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Imagine this: you're a farmer, and every morning you take a stroll through your fields, checking on your crops, which are your livelihood. However, as you reach the edge of your property, you find a fence torn down and your precious plants trampled underfoot—not by a stray cow or a mischievous child, but by a creature that seems to have walked straight out of a storybook: a mighty elephant. This isn't just a fanciful scenario; it's a harsh reality for many people living in close proximity to these endangered giants, both in Asia and Africa. Human-elephant conflict is a pressing issue that has grave implications for people's lives and livelihoods as well as for the conservation of these majestic animals. And just like many things on our rapidly changing planet, this conflict is set to get more intense with the ever-looming presence of climate change. Recently, some sharp minds at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management took a deep dive into what the future holds for human-elephant interactions. They've been picking apart the complicated web of factors that could lead to more run-ins between humans and elephants. It seems like the shift in where we grow our food (cropland density), how many of us there are (human population density), and where elephants can comfortably live (climatic suitability) will all play a part in the increasing likelihood of confrontation. The findings aren't exactly cause for celebration. Fast forward to the year 2050, and the risk of human-elephant conflict is predicted to shoot upwards. And things look particularly gloomy in what's called a "high-emissions" future—this is where global cooperation falters, nations are at odds, and sustainability takes a back seat (the "regional rivalry" scenario). But there's also an alternative future called "sustainability," where emissions are lower and our environmental act is a bit more together. Here, the increase in conflict risk isn't quite as steep. But there's a bit of a bitter twist. While you'd think that places becoming less suitable for elephants due to climate change might lessen the conflict, it generally happens the other way around. The areas where elephants find it increasingly hard to chill are often the same ones where the risk of conflict is surging. It's like being evicted from your comfy home and being pushed into a crowded street—frustration is bound to rise, and toes are bound to be stepped on. So, what's the take-home message from this peek into the future? Well, the trajectory we're on suggests that we're going to bump heads (or trunks) with these incredible creatures more often as the climate continues to change. However, it doesn't have to be a tale of doom and gloom. Being aware of this allows us to change the narrative. The researchers point out that if we start getting our act together right now, we can stave off the worst of these conflicts. By understanding where and how these tensions might increase, we can develop strategies that not only allow humans to thrive but ensure that the story of elephants continues for generations to come. In essence, it comes down to proactive solutions. This could mean smarter land-use planning, coming up with non-lethal deterrents, or establishing new conservation areas. The good news amidst the worry is that we do have tools at our disposal to ensure that both humans and elephants have their space and can coexist peacefully—even thrive—in a changing world. It's a complex puzzle, sure, but let's face it: elephants have a knack for problem-solving (they're known to be quite the intelligent beings), and we like to think we humans aren't too shabby in that department either. It's high time we put our heads together—figuratively speaking—and work out how to share this planet without stepping on each other's toes...or crops. With a mix of ingenuity, compassion, and a healthy dose of respect for these gentle giants, we can turn a potential crisis into a story of coexistence. Let's not wait until the elephants are at our doorsteps, or our crops at their feet—it's time to act now for a better shared future.



Main Study

1) Effects of climate, land use, and human population change on human-elephant conflict risk in Africa and Asia.

Published 6th February, 2024 (future Journal edition)

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