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Climate change is fueling more conflict between humans and wildlife

A farmer shows the damages done to his cocoa plantation by an elephant in West Africa. New research says climate change is putting wildlife and humans in conflict more often.
AFP via Getty Images
A farmer shows the damages done to his cocoa plantation by an elephant in West Africa. New research says climate change is putting wildlife and humans in conflict more often.

Wildfires pushing tigers towards Sumatran villages. Drought prodding elephants into African cropland. Hotter ocean temperatures forcing whales into shipping lanes.

Humans and wildlife have long struggled to harmoniously coexist. Climate change is pitting both against each other more often, new research finds, amplifying conflicts over habitat and resources.

"We should expect these kinds of conflicts to increase in the future," said lead researcher Briana Abrahms, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington. "Recognizing that climate is an important driver can help us better predict when they'll occur and help us [intervene]."

Human-wildlife conflict is defined as any time humans and wildlife have a negative interaction: a car hitting a deer; a carnivore killing livestock; a starving polar bear going into a remote Alaskan village looking for food.

Abrahms, who studying large carnivores in Africa and humpback whale entanglements off the Pacific Coast, started to notice examples of human-wildlife conflict that appeared to be influenced by the effects of climate change. She and a team of researchers looked at three decades of published research on human-wildlife conflict on six continents and five oceans, looking to see if there was a climate connection.

They found 49 cases that all followed a similar pattern, Abrahms said. "There's some climate driver that's changing what people do or what animals do and that's leading to these increased conflicts."

The most prominent driver of conflict they found involved a shift in resources. On land that frequently meant the availability of water.

Climate change is disrupting precipitation patterns around the world. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says roughly half of the world's population is experiencing severe water scarcity for at least one month per year due to climatic and other factors.

The shortages are forcing both people and wildlife to look for new sources of water, often bringing them into conflict. Many of those interactions, the new paper says, have resulted in human deaths or injuries, as well as property damage and loss of livelihoods. The findings were published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

In Zimbabwe and southern Africa, for example, rainfall patterns have become more unpredictable and droughts have intensified as the climate has warmed.

"Local communities not only have to contend with unreliable precipitation patterns that make them food insecure in the first place," Narcisa Pricope, a professor of geography at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, told NPR last summer. "But on top of that, they have to live with wildlife in very close proximity as a result of the shrinking of water availability throughout the landscape."

At least 20 people were killed in confrontations with elephants last year, according to Zimbabwe's National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

Drought has also been connected to increases in wildlife-vehicle collisions in Australia and North America. In California, drought and massive climate-fueled wildfires that damaged millions of acres of habitat forced deer, elk, black bears and mountain lions to seek out new habitat. The state's transportation agency warned in 2021, putting the animals and motorists at increased risk.

Collisions between vehicles and large mammals cause an estimated $8 billion in property damage and other costs every year, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Knowing that these kinds of conflicts are likely to increase as the climate continues to warm, Abrahms said, it's important for policymakers and people to look at solutions.

Take an acute drought, for example. Knowing that animals are going to be dealing with natural food shortages, she said, "let's make sure we are locking up our cars and putting food away in campsites."

Take steps, she said, to try and prevent a harmful interaction before it starts.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.