Climate change impact on Zambian elephants
Published On November 14, 2014 » 2094 Views» By Hildah Lumba » Features
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Wildlife and Environment logo copyBY Namuuya Sonile Sikanwe, -

CLIMATE change is real, “Climate change” affects more than just a change in the weather, and it refers to seasonal changes over a long period.
These climate patterns play a fundamental role in shaping natural ecosystems, and the human economies and cultures that depend on them. The average global surface temperature has warmed 0.8°C in the past century and 0.6°C in the past three decades (Hansen et al., 2006), in large part because of human activities (IPCC, 2001).
A recent report produced by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences confirms that the last few decades of the 20th century were in fact the warmest in the past 400 years (National Research Council, 2006).
The effects of climate change such as rising temperature and changes in precipitation are undeniably clear with impacts already affecting ecosystems, biodiversity and people.
In both developed and developing countries, climate impacts are reverberating through the economy, from threatening water availability to sea-level rise and extreme weather impacts to coastal regions and tourism.
In some countries, climate impacts affect the ecosystem services that communities are largely dependent upon, threatening development and economic stability. Future impacts are projected to worsen as the temperature continues to rise and as precipitation becomes more unpredictable.
Climate change is one of the most significant contemporary threats to biodiversity worldwide and is expected to have a profound effect on both individuals and populations in animal communities (Walther et al. 2002, Thomas et al. 2004, Isaac & Williams 2007). Indeed, the negative effects of climate change are already apparent in a variety of taxa and ecosystems (Walther et al. 2002).
In the geological past, much extinction is thought to have been associated with ‘natural’ climatic changes that resulted in habitat loss and ecosystem change (McKinney 1997). However, in the past 8000 year, extinction rates have risen exponentially and not a single case of extinction can be attributed to a non-human induced cause (Caughley 1994).
Many of the Earth’s ecosystems are already stressed by other detrimental human impacts, such as land clearing and habitat fragmentation, making small and isolated populations highly susceptible to the type of stochastic events which climate change will bring, such as wildfires and hurricanes.
In Zambia, any change in climate can spell disaster. With a majority of Zambians depending on agriculture, even a slight change in temperature can affect crops like maize with catastrophic consequences for livelihoods and wildlife. In the village of Lusitu, in the south of Zambia, the returns from farming had diminished due to severe droughts.
According to Eva Chipepo, a local villager, “rainfall is insufficient to give us a good crop yield” and “wild animals (elephants) usually wander in the fields”, further destroying crops. Elephant is a species of enormous economic value. If the elephant is properly managed to meet the CITES conditions, Zambia can benefit economically from the species through consumptive utilisation by way of trophy hunting, sale of ivory and other elephant by-products. Resumption of consumptive utilisation would add to the current benefits accruing from photographic safaris and the newly introduced elephant back ride safaris. Regarding the species’ role in the ecosystem, elephant plays an important function in the ecology of the habitats.
Their feeding habits of breaking woody vegetation, opening up forest canopy and thickets, modify the habitat.  Pathways are created which other animals and humans alike can use. Elephants also facilitate seed dispersal. Seeds of species such as Faidhebiaalbida are known to germinate from elephant dung.
Several other woody plants benefit in the same way.  Elephants also dig for water in dry riverbeds making water available to other species. Total elimination or loss of this keystone species would have a significant impact on the ecology of its habitat and other species. Elephants as a valuable renewable resource if managed properly would provide opportunities for income generation.
It is therefore, Government’s intention to utilize this resource on a sustainable basis in non-consumptive ways as one of the most important tourist attractions and when conditions permit to resume consumptive utilisation through trophy hunting within an ecological framework, which seeks to set and balance between present habitat, species diversity and elephant population
Changes in rainfall amount and pattern, as well as resulting flood or wildfire affects African elephants. Drought directly affects the freshwater supply and plants that African elephants eat. Normally these animals will move away from drought-stricken areas as long as they have space and access.
Droughts will become more frequent and longer with climate change, making it even more important for elephants to migrate freely and securely in search of water and vegetation. For one major sequence in Planet Earth,” Fothergill (April 22, 2009) says. “And then the flood really never came to the extent that we had predicted it.”
This potential effect of climate change goes undetected in the scene, as the weary, thirsty elephants eventually bask in an unimaginable bounty of water. In this way, it’s a much more subtle ecological clarion call.
It is estimated that by the year 2020, there will be 400,000 elephants in southern Africa alone, a potentially calamitous situation given the inability of the natural environment to support existing numbers. Of particular concern is the combined effect of large elephant populations, uncontrolled bush fires and climate change impacts on biodiversity in the Zambezi Basin. The major effects of the increase in elephant population include soil erosion, vegetation damage and the loss of biodiversity. The loss of tree cover causes soil erosion, resulting in siltation of water points. With concerns that climate change will cause unreliable rainfall in the basin this will put more pressure on existing freshwater sources as competition for water increases especially between the larger mammals (elephants) as well as between communities and wildlife.
For instance in Southern Africa, whether climate change brings too much rain (causing floods) or too little rain (bringing more drought and wildfires), some areas may simply become unsuitable for certain species to survive. For instance, by 2080, much of South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park may be uninhabitable for the African elephant.
In conclusion climate change is one of the most important and complex challenges facing the Zambia today, much as in the rest of the world. Projected changes in the earth’s climate present more than just an environmental concern but also serious social and economic implications.
While the riparian states of the Zambezi River Basin of Zambia bear little responsibility for the build-up of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases in the earth’s atmosphere, they stand to bear the brunt of the environmental, social and economic consequences of a warming climate.
Impacts such as flooding, drought and desertification could lead to loss of agricultural land, degradation of water sources and destruction of social and economic infrastructure. Climate change and variability continue to pose a threat to the delicate balance in food security through erratic rainfall patterns and decreasing crop yields.
Reversing deforestation, adopting more efficient and cleaner energy producing technologies and expanding the use of bio-fuels in the transport sector would bring about benefits, not only in terms of reducing climate change risks, but also in terms of reducing other environmental problems.
Such measures would also address economic goals, including reduced dependence on imported petroleum products and creating employment. Increased use of small-scale rainwater harvesting technologies would help to improve crop productivity and lead to improvements in water management and poverty reduction as well as reduced vulnerability to climate change in all sectors of the government,most especially to the wildlife industry.
The success of past and current sustainable development initiatives in the country as they rise to meet the climate challenge as most, if not all, such interventions support attempts to stem the unrelenting impact of climate change on the elephant’s population as a whole.
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