Habitat loss as a result of a human population boom in Africa could threaten the very existence of elephants there, according to a new study.
African elephants face a range of threats in the 21st century. Poaching for their ivory tusks, habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and climate change have all contributed to their numbers falling by 60 percent since 1970. Given the limited resources that are available for conservation, it is crucial to identify and prioritise the most significant and immediate threats.
The new study, published today in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, compared the impacts of climate change and habitat loss on elephants inhabiting the Amboseli ecosystem in southern Kenya.
Scientists from the University of Reading, in collaboration with colleagues at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, simulated how food resources would be affected under several habitat loss and climate change scenarios to predict their impact on elephant numbers by the end of the century. They concluded that habitat loss was the greatest threat to Amboseli elephants in this area, and that humans can play a key role in limiting this threat.
Vicky Boult, from the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading and lead author of the study, said: “More greenhouse gas emissions may bring more rainfall to this part of Africa, which would actually increase the food available to elephants. Habitat loss however, will reduce the area, and thus the food. This makes habitat loss the most immediate threat to Amboseli elephants.
“It is important to note, however, that there will be winners and losers of climate change. While Amboseli’s elephants may fare well, elephants elsewhere in Africa may see the climate become drier and their food availability decline.
“The priority in protecting these elephants will be to prevent their habitats being converted into human-dominated landscapes, so that elephants have continued access to food there. Humans must be better neighbours to elephants to allow this to happen, and initiatives must be introduced and funded to help people share space with elephants better.”
Studies show elephant numbers in Africa have fallen from an estimated one million in 1970 to around 400,000 in 2016. Much of this is down to human interaction, such as poaching and conflict due to sharing of space.
The human population of Africa has doubled to one billion since 1982 and is expected to double again by 2050. This expansion has squeezed elephants into smaller and increasingly isolated pockets of land, where resources are often scarce.
The scientists plan to further improve the model to factor in the fact that elephants move seasonally to maximise food resource, and may even avoid some food-rich areas due to lack of water availability, shade or perceived risks. They will also further investigate how climate change will affect these landscapes.