World Wildlife Day: The Real Reason Human and Animal Conflict Is Increasing

This World Wildlife Day, Newsweek is taking a look at human-wildlife conflict, and why it is on the rise throughout the globe.

World Wildlife Day is an annual event held by the United Nations to raise awareness of and celebrate Earth's animals and plants.

It also aims to bring attention to the main issues surrounding wildlife across the globe.

A new study, released on February 27 in Nature Climate Change, found that there is one issue that needs immediate attention: the effect of climate change on human-wildlife conflict.

The study found that human–wildlife conflict could be exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Scientists who worked on the study are now calling for mitigation measures to reduce any impact.

By analyzing 49 case studies across six continents, wildlife biologist Briana Abrahms and colleagues discovered that the effects of climate change—depleting resources due to changing temperatures and conditions—were amplifying conflicts in 80 percent of cases.

Abrahms, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Washington, told Newsweek that one of the most striking cases studied was the connection between sea ice decline and human conflict with polar bears.

Polar bear
A stock photo shows a polar bear with its mouth open. Conflicts between humans and polar bears have been increasing a lot due to climate change. rebius/Getty

"Polar bears heavily rely on sea ice to hunt marine mammals such as seals. As sea ice has declined from global warming, bears have had to spend more time on land and look for alternative food sources, which has increasingly put them in contact with people," Abrahms said.

Abrahms said the recent case of a woman and her child being mauled by a polar bear in Alaska is part of a "bigger story of climate change driving contact between people and animals in increasingly crowded spaces."

This incident occurred in January, in the town of Wales. The polar bear entered a village during a snowstorm and fatally attacked the woman and the child. The bear was shot and killed by another resident. It was later found that the bear had been in poor health. Polar bears in poor condition are more likely to attack, as they become more desperate for food.

The study notes that more hungry bears are being forced to seek food in populated areas, which has led to property damage and life-threatening encounters. As a result, the bears often end up being killed.

Churchill, Manitoba in Canada—known to be the "polar bear capital of the world"—is a particular hot spot for these increased conflicts.

The study reported that conflicts between bears and humans tripled in the area from 1970 to 2005 "as a direct consequence of declines in sea ice."

"Not only is this a huge concern for public safety and human well-being, but it's also a pressing concern for the survival of endangered species. Polar bears are killed every year as a result of conflicts like these," Abrahms said. "We know that polar bears are already heavily threatened by climate change, so when you also consider how climate change is increasing conflict, it raises a lot of concern about how these threats can synergistically drive population decline."

Polar bears are not the only animals being forced into areas populated by humans. Additionally, a lack of sea ice is not the only climate change-caused condition thought to be exacerbating conflict.

The situation is also affecting tapirs in Mexico and elephants living in Tanzania and Kenya. There are cases where these animals have been forced into populated areas due to the droughts gripping these countries.

Droughts around the globe have become worse in recent years due to climate change. Increased dry conditions are depleting water sources and making food sources scarce for the animals.

Elephants in particular can cause damage when they wander into populated areas due to their huge size. The wandering animals can subsequently cause crop damage—which in these drought-stricken countries is devastating to people's livelihoods. This often leads to retaliatory killing.

Elephant drinking
A stock photo shows an elephant drinking from a watering hole. Climate change is making these resources limited, forcing the animals into human-populated areas. jez_bennett/Getty

The World Wildlife Fund previously reported that Kenyan wildlife authorities kill between 50 and 120 "problem elephants" each year. This is detrimental to the endangered species, as over the last 100 years, populations have decreased from as much as 5 million to as low as 470,000, according to the WWF.

Drought conditions in the east of Africa—particularly Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya—are incredibly severe, after five consecutive failed rainy seasons. This affects both humans and wildlife, as it creates ongoing competition for resources.

The warming climate is also leading to increased snowmelt in high-elevation areas such as the Himalayas, the study reported. As a result, bharal—an animal commonly used as livestock in these communities—have been moving to lower latitudes and more populated areas. And snow leopards have been following them.

When the snow leopards kill livestock, this also leads to more retaliatory killings, the study reported.

Abrahms said that the "climatic driver of conflicts differed a lot geographically."

"For example, at high latitudes we're seeing a greater impact of long-term climate change like rising temperatures or sea ice declines on human-wildlife conflict, whereas in the tropics we're seeing a greater impact of extreme climate events typically related to precipitation, like extreme droughts or monsoons."

Mitigation measures for this problem differ across the globe, depending on the context of each location. But scientists have no doubt that they must be implemented as climate change worsens, due to the harm human-wildlife conflict causes.

"There are a lot of measures to mitigate human-wildlife conflict that depend on the specific context. In agricultural settings, good fencing and guard dogs can be very effective at reducing losses from carnivores or herbivores. We also know that livestock compensation programs, where governments or community organizations reimburse farmers for losses due to carnivores, can be effective at reducing retaliatory killing of carnivores which is a large contributor to the global decline of many carnivore species," Abrahms said.

Human-wildlife conflict can threaten public safety and livelihoods, and cost the global economy billions, according to Abrahms.

"Human-wildlife conflict is also a key contributor to the global biodiversity crisis, and we know that having healthy, biodiverse ecosystems benefits people in numerous ways. Large carnivores, for example, contribute to a multi-billion dollar global ecotourism industry, reduce significant agricultural losses from crop-raiding animals, and reduce fatal vehicle collisions and the transmission of Lyme disease by suppressing herbivore populations. However, human-carnivore conflict and retaliatory killing of carnivores has led to the global decline of many carnivore species."

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