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Floods recently ravaged the Horn of Africa, ending five successive years of scorching drought. Meanwhile, weather forecasts predict the delayed onset of rains and potential drought in southern Africa. These weather extremes are occurring due to the ongoing El Niño phenomenon—clear evidence of how climate change has become an existential threat to humanity.
For example, in 2019, more than 200 elephants died in Zimbabwe due to severe drought; this phenomenon is recurring now due to the extended dry season in Hwange National Park. Thousands more wildlife have perished between 2018 and 2023 because of drought in the Horn of Africa.
The return of rains to the region seemed like a respite, but the intensity of the rain is once again putting wildlife and people at risk.
These climate extremes’ devastating impact on wildlife and humans calls for ‘an integrated and holistic approach to support climate-resilient landscapes and communities,’ says Phillip Kuvawoga, IFAW’s director of landscape conservation.
Human-wildlife conflict around parks and conservancies is on the rise, and climate change further exacerbates the problem. Shortages of food and water for animals in protected areas heighten the risk of human-wildlife conflict as wildlife move into surrounding communities to search for these resources. Drought conditions also radically reduce viable harvests, which drives communities to poach and encroach into wildlife reserves in search of resources for survival.
Flooding similarly drives human-wildlife conflict. It destroys food sources and critical habitats, pushing wildlife to seek shelter in areas where humans live. It also wreaks havoc on human food production, driving people into protected areas to hunt wildlife as a coping mechanism.
The flooding in the Horn of Africa and the impending drought in southern Africa increase the risk of human-wildlife conflict in 2024 and beyond.
According to FEWSNET’s November 2023 weather alert, the ongoing strong El Niño event will reach peak intensity later this month and is expected to dissipate by mid-2024.
According to the alert, the resulting rainfall deficits in southern Africa will likely cause below-average harvests in 2024, including in countries such as South Africa and Zambia, which typically produce surplus. FEWSNET estimates that over 20 million people in southern Africa will need food assistance during the peak of the lean season between January and March 2024.
Since the start of the dry season, dozens of elephants have died of thirst at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Conservationists fear losing more as the El Niño-induced drought persists and dries up watering holes. Although Hwange has 104 solar-powered boreholes providing water for wildlife, including 45,000 elephants, authorities say it is not enough amid a drought forecasted to last until 2024.
Due to high temperatures, existing water sources are also drying up, forcing animals to walk long distances for food and water.
Kuvawoga fears this pressure will be brought to bear on conservation.
‘The illegal use of natural resources, especially the poaching of elephants and other high-value species, is likely to escalate as local communities seek coping mechanisms and safety nets from the climate impact,’ he says.
When rural communities living in buffer zones of protected areas experience frequent damage to crops, property, or persons due to human-wildlife conflict, the incentive to collude with poachers is potentially high, he says.
Dr. Jimmiel Mandima, IFAW’s vice president of global programs and institutional giving, says the recurrence and the intensity of climate shocks is a reminder of the necessity for nature-based solutions to mitigate the impacts of these climate ravages.
He points out that these extreme weather events are costly and retrogressive to Africa’s economic growth agenda.
‘These disasters also provide a strong impetus for Africa to push for the urgent operationalisation of the new loss and damage funding mechanism,’ Mandima adds.
At COP28, currently taking place in Dubai, parties have agreed on the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund, a big win for campaigners in the climate crisis and conservation. The fund will aim to support the most vulnerable and poorest countries to keep up with the rising costs associated with extreme weather events, such as storms and floods, as well as longer-term consequences of climate change, including rising sea levels and melting glaciers.
IFAW’s agenda at COP28 advocates for wildlife conservation as a nature-based solution to tackling climate-change. ‘Wild animals protect the carbon already stored in nature, prevent it from being released into the atmosphere, and help nature soak up and store even more carbon,’ Mandima says.
Kuvawoga believes the anticipated deaths of elephants and other species should be recognised as ‘a symptom of deep-seated and multiple challenges affecting the region’s conservation sector, exacerbated by climate change.’
There is a need, he says, for governments and conservation organisations to develop an ecosystem-level planning approach founded on measures for climate-resilient ecosystems, community-centered opportunities that reduce human-wildlife conflict, enhanced law enforcement, and sustainable water management systems in both protected and buffer areas.
For example, through our partnerships, we support sustainable game water management for both people and animals through pan scooping at Nyamandlovu in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and drilling boreholes in target communities in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia.
‘Additionally, we have procured water storage facilities for the communities, including piping, to deliver safe drinking water for people and animals. This has a net effect of separating humans, livestock, and wildlife, potentially reducing transmission of zoonotic diseases and other adverse interaction effects,’ Kuvawoga explains.
IFAW further supports interventions that help reduce biodiversity loss and improve community livelihoods, such as climate-smart agriculture, tourism development, conservation education, and land use planning anchored by robust research and monitoring. Through Room to Roam, we are improving the connectivity of habitats to ensure the safe passage of animals and help them co-exist with humans.