African Great Apes, elephants set to face more extreme climate

Sunday March 17 2024

A herd of elephants crossing the road towards Mutara Ranch in Laikipia County, Kenya on July 20, 2022. PHOTO | NMG


African Great Apes could encounter a rise in extreme climate events over the next three decades, a recent study reveals.

Despite efforts to mitigate climate change, these apes are projected to be increasingly exposed to challenges such as wildfires, heatwaves, and flooding, the research by Razak Kiribou and his team at Haramaya University in Ethiopia, published in the open-access journal PLOS Climate, highlighted.

By analysing climate data from 363 sites across Africa from 1981 to 2010, the team forecast frequency of extreme events that could affect the apes.

Despite efforts to mitigate climate change, African great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, and Bonobo) are expected to confront a more frequent wildfires, heatwaves, and flooding over the next 30 years. These extreme events are projected to intensify.

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Climate projections indicate that 61 percent of primate habitat across Africa is likely to be exposed to temperature increases of over 3°C by 2050, with potential decreases of up to 85 percent in African ape ranges due to the combined impact of climate, land-use, and population changes. African apes, flagship and highly important umbrella species for other animal and plant species within the same geographical areas.


Findings from the study indicate that between 2007 and 2016, nearly half of the sites experienced higher-than-average temperatures, with eastern chimpanzees a subspecies of the common chimpanzee, native to the CAR, South Sudan, the DR Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania, facing the most extreme heat.

Regardless of the climate change scenario considered, temperatures are expected to rise at all sites, leading to a heightened risk of wildfires and crop failures in the near future.

Where warming is limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, a significant portion of sites (84 percent) are projected to face frequent heatwaves and occasional flooding (78 percent) in the next three decades. However, if global temperatures increase by 3°C, the number of affected sites and the frequency of extreme events are expected to be even higher.

Meanwhile, a similar study on elephants, predicts that older elephants will bear the brunt of climate change effects, endangering the long-term survival of the already vulnerable species.

These East Africa giants face a grim future due to habitat loss, human-wildlife conflicts, and the exacerbation of these issues by climate change.

Read: Elephants die in Zimbabwe park amid drought

A new study by Simon Nampindo from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Timothy Randhir from the University of Massachusetts, published in the open-access journal PLOS Sustainability and Transformation, a heightened vulnerability is foreseen for older elephants, particularly those in the age groups of 41–50 and above, to diseases and drought-induced events.

The African elephant population has drastically declined over the past century, with specific locations now hosting fragmented populations. The Great Elephant Census conducted in 18 African range states in 2016 revealed a significant 30 percent decline, with Tanzania experiencing the highest losses on the continent.

The African elephant’s classification as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List highlights the various environmental stressors contributing to its diminishing numbers.

“While efforts have been made to comprehend elephant ecology, limited studies have delved into the intricate dynamics of environmental changes, climate change impacts, habitat alterations, and their effects on elephant populations and demographics over extended periods,” said the researchers.

African elephants play critical ecological roles by shaping habitats for other species through tree felling, seed dispersal, and soil fertilisation with their dung. However, the population decline of elephants across Africa persists due to habitat loss and human conflicts, challenges that are expected to worsen with climate change.

Researchers have utilised historical climate, vegetation, and elephant population data from 1960 to 2010 to model the repercussions of habitat and water resource alterations on elephants in the Greater Virunga Landscape spanning Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Simulating the outcomes of various climate scenarios and conservation policies on elephant survival and reproduction across age groups, the study revealed that climate change-driven temperature and rainfall shifts could potentially eradicate elephants in the 41-50 and over 50 age brackets.

Older elephants play a vital role in the survival of elephant herds, passing down invaluable knowledge to younger generations.

Nevertheless, the study’s findings suggest that this age group will face the harshest consequences of climate change. Preserving these iconic animals necessitates collaborative efforts among nations and communities to safeguard habitats and water resources.

They advised that implementing policies safeguarding crucial habitats and conserving water resources could help alleviate these impacts. Enhancing forest and savanna habitats by 50 percent in the Greater Virunga Landscape could benefit elephants across all age groups.

Effectively managing large wild herbivores like elephants demands a deep understanding of how habitat quality and climate influence wildlife populations. Long-term planning based on comprehensive insights into how population processes are affected by habitat changes, climate variations, and management decisions is essential to ensure the conservation of these magnificent creatures.