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Global warming could increase risk of human-elephant conflict, researchers say

The risks for conflict between elephants and humans could increase in the future due to climate change and other human-caused environmental factors, according to new research.

In one of the first studies to look at how rising global temperatures will affect interactions between humans and another large mammal species, researchers mapped human–elephant conflict risk in elephant habitats. The findings show that instances of conflict will likely occur more often as temperatures rise and suitable elephant habitats are encroached upon, according to a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

MORE: Asian elephants have lost 64% of their suitable habitat, scientists say

The researchers compared data on human population density, cropland density and Asian and African elephant range, finding that conflict risk increased for both African and Asian elephants by 2050 under various scenarios, Patrick Roehrdanz, director for climate change and biodiversity Conservation International, an environmental nonprofit, told ABC News.

For the purpose of the paper, human-elephant conflict is defined as interactions between humans and elephants that have negative outcomes for either party, Mia Guarnieri, wildlife biologist and lead researcher of the paper, told ABC News. One example is crop raiding, in which elephants eat crops and prompt retaliatory killings by farmers, Guarnieri said.

PHOTO: Locals are watching a herd of elephants gathering near a rice field in Borkala village, Nagaon District, Assam, India, on Dec. 7, 2023.  (Anuwar Hazarika/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Locals are watching a herd of elephants gathering near a rice field in Borkala village, Nagaon District, Assam, India, on Dec. 7, 2023. (Anuwar Hazarika/Getty Images)

"The largest outcome that we noticed was that there is a net increase in conflict risk for both of these species as climate change progresses and that increase was greater under the scenario that had higher emissions and higher barriers to to conservation work," Guarnieri said.

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Conflict with elephants centers a lot around agriculture -- especially of farms that cultivate corn or millet seed, some of the elephants' favorite crops, Guarnieri said. When crop raiding occurs, the elephant often loses its life and the livelihood of the farmers is also impacted, she added.

PHOTO: MATHURA, INDIA - AUGUST 10: Ginger (61), a rescued blind female Asian elephant, receives fruits from her caregiver before going for medical treatment, at Wildlife SOS's Elephant Conservation and Care Centre (ECCC), on August 10, 2023. (Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: MATHURA, INDIA - AUGUST 10: Ginger (61), a rescued blind female Asian elephant, receives fruits from her caregiver before going for medical treatment, at Wildlife SOS's Elephant Conservation and Care Centre (ECCC), on August 10, 2023. (Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, FILE)

When the conflict occurs, it can have a negative impact on local conservation efforts for a species that has experienced vast population declines over the past several decades -- often due to habitat loss and the ivory trade.

Elephants are behaviorally complex and will respond to different climate pressures, such as water availability, Roehrdanz said. These changes will then affect their movement, changing the corridors they take, he added.

MORE: As tiger populations increase, so do conflicts with humans

The regions in which human-elephant conflicts occur the most are clusters of east central Africa for African elephants and India for Asian elephants, Guarnieri said. Expansion of conflict risk is expected to occur along the northern border of the Asian elephants' range, she said, adding that humans can restrict that range.

"Given the opportunity, elephants would be more widely distributed than they are now," Roehrdanz said.

PHOTO: People feed an elephant at the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Hindu temple in Kataragama, Sri Lanka on August 20, 2022. (Nurphoto/Getty Images)
PHOTO: People feed an elephant at the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Hindu temple in Kataragama, Sri Lanka on August 20, 2022. (Nurphoto/Getty Images)

The study, a collaboration between Conservation International and University of California, Santa Barbara, is part of a broader initiative looking at the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and how to plan for conservation accordingly, Roehrdanz said. A lot of the work is centered around anticipating where species might move in response to changing climate conditions, he explained.

MORE: Suspected poacher killed by elephants at South African national park

The findings validate the notion that the consequences of climate change could impact the conflict between elephant species and humans, Guarnieri said. The study also underscores that humans need to look more closely at mitigating some of the harm that could accompany the interactions, she said.

"There's still much future work to be accomplished in terms of the precise responses of elephants and other animals as well -- how they will respond to climate change and how that relates to the likelihood of conflict," Roehrdanz said.

Global warming could increase risk of human-elephant conflict, researchers say originally appeared on abcnews.go.com