How Might Climate Change Affect Asian Elephants?

elephantsThis morning’s news brought word of a study in Nature Climate Change that predicts devastating global species losses as a result of climate change. The analysis found that some 57 percent of plants and 34 percent of animals would lose more than half of their range by the 2080s if nothing is done to stem the tide of rising greenhouse gases.

“This broader issue of potential range loss in widespread species is a serious concern as even small declines in these species can significantly disrupt ecosystems,” the study’s lead author, Rachel Warren of the University of East Anglia in England, said in a statement.

But it might be easy for many people to ignore something as nebulous as “plants” or “animals” or “ecosystems.” After all, maybe your favorite one won’t be affected. So lets look at another recent study, one of Asian elephants in Myanmar (Burma) that was just published online in Ecology.

Researchers from the United Kingdom and Germany analyzed longevity data from 1,024 semi-captive elephants that were born between 1948 and 1999. These elephants are used in places like the timber industry in Myanmar. They work during the day but forage for food on their own at night, and they breed at will. They have many similarities to fully wild elephants but are easier to study.

This dataset included not just information on how long each elephant lived and how they died, but also about the environmental conditions during their lifespans — specifically, temperatures and rainfall. That let the scientists see how the elephants survived during hot versus cold spells, or during rainy seasons and droughts.

Both temperature and rainfall influenced the survival of elephants over the time of the study. Heat was especially bad — most deaths occurred when temperatures were above 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit). Very cold times also weren’t good for the elephants, nor was drought.

That is not good news for Asian elephants, which are already dwindling in numbers. Southeast Asia is expected to warm by up to 3 degrees C over the next 30 to 40 years, accompanied by changes to the yearly monsoon season. “Increased extremes in temperature and rainfall (both within a year and between years) may therefore lead to significant increases in mortality of Myanmar elephants in the near future,” the researchers write.

There has been some debate in the scientific community about whether long-lived creatures will be affected all that much by climate change, and whether species in tropical regions, already adapted for heat, will do as badly under warming conditions. This study, of long-lived elephants living in tropical Myanmar, puts holes in both those theories. “Despite living in a highly seasonal environment, our results indicate that modest deviations from optimal conditions have effects on Asian elephant survival,” the researchers write. Elephant survival under even modest climate changes, therefore, will be a challenge.

Image of elephants in Myanmar courtesy of flickr user Mandala Travel

No Easy Solutions For Saving Africa’s Wildlife

elephantA sampling of recent stories from Africa:

Dozens of elephants were slaughtered in Chad in just a week. Then there was a study that estimated 62 percent of central Africa’s pachyderms were killed between 2002 and 2011. And a report that 80 percent of the water buffalo in the Serengeti have been lost to poaching, along with 2,000 elephants and nearly all the rhinos. The United Nations Environment Programme says that 22,218 great apes, more than half chimpanzees, have been killed since 2005.

In a rare spot of good news, six rare white rhinos were secretly transported to Botswana to escape rampant poaching in South Africa. But that’s just a drop in the bucket when two dozen rhinos can be killed in a week.

Thousands and thousands of iconic wildlife are killed each year in Africa, and I can’t help but think that the problem is getting worse.

There are plenty of suggestions for how to stop the tide: Legalize trade in rhino horn. Build fences around lion habitat. Slick ad campaigns and a multi-national anti-poaching force. But what strikes me about all these proposals and plans is that they don’t get to the heart of the problem — greed.

As long as the money to be made through the wildlife trade outweighs the risks and punishments, poaching will continue.

Those caught poaching animals or trafficking in their remains are often let off with little more than a slap on the wrist, usually just a fine. A Chinese ivory smuggler, for example, was fined all of $350 for a haul worth $2,500 before being set free. Punishment in the U.S. for these crimes can be more harsh — a father and son team of rhino horn smugglers faced a fine of up to $1 million in one case last year — but I do wonder how much of that was for tax evasion rather than wildlife trafficking. And though there are a few countries where poaching and smuggling can bring a sentence of jail time, convictions can be rare.

Calls for Google to remove ads for ivory are at least trying to get at the root of the problem. While there is a market for things like ivory and rhino horn and lion parts, there will be people willing to kill elephants and big cats and other amazing creatures.

But how do you fight a rumor that rhino horn will cure cancer? Or that lion bone will increase a man’s sex drive? That God wants to you wear ivory? That a chimp bone will make a child stronger?

Fences may help keep lions or elephants from straying into villages, but it won’t stop a determined man with a gun from trying to make a few thousand dollars. Legalizing trade in animal parts isn’t going to stop demand for them. Slick ad campaigns won’t deter someone who truly believes they’ve found a cure for the disease that’s killing them. And building up an army of anti-poaching forces can’t protect every animal on the continent, especially when there are still legal options (i.e., trophy hunting) for obtaining wildlife.

What we need, around the world, is better laws against the wildlife trade, better enforcement of these laws, and harsher punishments attached to wildlife crimes. And we should promote projects that give local people incentive to protect the wildlife around them, such as through ecotourism.

Because it’s only when we change the equation such that an elephant or a rhino or a lion is worth more alive than dead that the killing will stop.

Image of a poached elephant carcass in Cameroon in 2009, courtesy of flickr user USFWS Headquarters