When we talk about societies coping with climate change, a huge part of any conversation tends to be about dealing with mass migration of people. With changing weather conditions and rising seas, many places that have historically held large populations are becoming increasingly hostile, and the number of people displaced by climate change is ever-growing. The thing is – humans aren’t the only ones being displaced. You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but changing climate conditions have also been driving animals to seek out new places to live, or new sources of food. With so much of the planet affected by human activity, and so much habitat being destroyed in the name of greed, displaced animals are increasingly showing up in populated areas. This, in turn, is driving an increase in conflict between humans and wildlife:
The new study shows that climate shifts can drive conflicts by altering animal habitats — like sea ice for polar bears — as well as the timing of events, wildlife behaviors and resource availability. It also showed that people are changing their behaviors and locations in response to climate change in ways that increase conflicts. Other examples of the effects of short- and long-term climate events include:
- Torrential floods in Tanzania led to more lion attacks after their usual prey migrated away from floodplains.
- Higher air temperatures in Australia triggered more aggressive behavior in eastern brown snakes, leading to more incidents of snake bites.
- Wildfires in Sumatra, Indonesia — triggered by El Nino — drove Asian elephants and tigers out of reserves and into human-inhabited areas, leading to at least one death.
- Disruption of terrestrial food webs during La Nina events in the Americas drove black bears in New Mexico and foxes in Chile into human settlements in search of food.
- Warmer air and ocean temperatures in a severe El Nino led to an increase in shark attacks in South Africa.
Most cases of human-wildlife conflict linked to climate involve a shift in resources — not just for wildlife, but also for people.
A majority of cases on land also involved a change in precipitation, which will continue to be affected by climate change. Many resulted in human deaths or injuries, as well as property damage.
In 2009, for example, a severe drought struck the western part of Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro Region. This reduced food supplies for African elephants, which in turn entered local fields to graze on crops — at times destroying 2 to 3 acres daily. Local farmers, whose livelihoods were directly threatened by the drought, at times resorted to retaliatory killings of elephants to try to mitigate these raids.
“Identifying and understanding this link between human-wildlife conflicts is not only a conservation issue,” said Abrahms. “It is also a social justice and human safety issue.”
These types of conflicts are likely to rise as climate change intensifies, particularly as mass migrations of people and wildlife increase and resources shift.
Unfortunately, we know this kind of conflict often goes, and it doesn’t tend to end well for the non-human participants. Another factor that this article doesn’t mention is the risk of disease transmission. I mentioned this last year, but the increase in human-animal interaction also increases the risk of a new disease being transmitted. Regardless of how, exactly, COVID19 ended up in the human population, there seems to be universal agreement that the disease was zoonotic in origin, probably carried by bats. There are plenty of animal diseases that humans simply cannot catch, but there are plenty more that we can, and as I said last year, we can thank climate change for the fact that “once in a century” pandemics will probably come multiple times in this century.
The upside, according to these researchers, is that there’s evidence that better understanding how humans and wildlife come into conflict can help us mitigate that problem:
But, it doesn’t have to be all bad news.
“One major motivation in studying the link between climate change and human-wildlife conflict is finding solutions,” said Abrahms. “As we learn about specific incidents, we can identify patterns and trends — and come up with interventions to try to address or lessen these conflicts.”
Some interventions may be as simple as public-awareness campaigns, such as advising residents of the American Southwest during La Nina years to carry bear spray on a hike. Governments can also plan for times when extreme climate events will bring people and wildlife into closer contact. Botswana, for example, has funds in place to compensate herders and ranchers for drought-induced attacks by wildlife on livestock, often in exchange for pledges not to engage in retaliatory killings of wildlife.
“We have effective drought forecasts now. So, governments can engage in fiscal planning for mitigating conflicts ahead of time,” said Abrahms. “Instead of a ‘rainy day’ fund, have a ‘dry day’ fund.”
To Abrahms, one success story of note lies in the waters of the eastern Pacific. In 2014 and 2015, a record number of humpback and blue whales became ensnared in fishing lines off the California coast. Research later showed that an extreme marine heat wave had pushed whales closer to shore, following their primary food sources. California regulators now adjust the start and end of each fishing season based on climate and ocean conditions in the Pacific — delaying the season if whales and fishing gear are likely to come into close contact.
“These examples show us that once you know the root causes of a conflict, you can design interventions to help both people and wildlife,” said Abrahms. “We can change.”
We can change.
I talk a lot about how humanity’s greatest strength is our ability to work together for mutual benefit, but another strength is our ability to thrive under all sorts of conditions, and to change how we do things to better suit our environments. I think we might put too much emphasis on how we change our environments to suit us, because while we do do that, the fact remains that what changes we make are often dictated by local conditions. In the past, when “local conditions” included regular, violent encounters with animals, our solution has often been to kill those animals. With a global society that’s blessed with abundance, that’s no longer necessary to ensure our survival. We could, pretty easily, ensure that any time one part of the planet is having a rough time, they get resources from those areas that are doing better. To some degree, we do this now, but it’s inadequate, and often comes with conditions that empower whoever’s providing the aid. In a world that doesn’t prioritize the endless greed of the aristocracy, we would have far more flexibility to change how we interact with our surroundings.
We should also be rewilding a lot of developed land, and practicing ecosystem management to help wildlife cope with climate change. While the main reason people want to do that is to help slow or reverse global warming, it will also make it far less likely that animals will feel a need to interfere with us. We have a wealth of knowledge that could help us build a very different, much better society, and I also believe we have the material resources to do that. What we lack is organized political power to actually bring that better society into being.
Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name a place or character in that series!
Leave a Reply