According to a study published on Thursday (29) in the journal Science, climate change is further accentuating conflicts between humans and wild animals by modifying ecosystems and behaviors, which can deepen contacts — and potential competition — between people and animals

A University of Washington study establishes a relationship between climate change and conflicts between humans and wildlife. Image: Sergey Nivens – Shutterstock

University of Washington biology professor and member of the Center for Sentinel Ecosystems at the University of Washington, Briana Abrahms, responsible for the study, sees the need for expanding research into the many ways in which climate change could affect the complex interaction between human activities. and wildlife populations.

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In an interview with UW News, Abrahms explained that incorporating climate change into studies of human-wildlife interactions will not only help scientists find ways to mitigate the effects of these conflicts. It can also alert policymakers, experts and ordinary citizens to potential sources of human-wildlife conflict before they occur.

“I have been looking into this matter for some time now. But, I was really motivated when I had two clear examples of completely different ecosystems before me, where extreme weather events led to catastrophic conflict,” said the researcher. "It made me think how prevalent this is globally."

The first event, according to Abrahms, took place in 2015 and 2016, when there was a dramatic increase in the number of whales tangled up in fishing nets on the west coast of the USA. It was the result of two others: “First, the whales moved further to shore to chase their prey, which had moved during the heat wave,” he explains.

“Secondly, it changed the timing of the Dungeness Crab fishing season. This conjunction of the change in how whales use their available space in the ocean and the timing of this fishing created this perfect overlapping storm and led directly to an increase in whale entanglement.”

Change in the behavior of prey due to climatic factors, led whales to move to the American west coast exactly during the fishing period, which caused a large part of them to become entangled in the nets. Image: UniPlanet

The other case came from a report by the government of Botswana, where Abrahms carried out much of his fieldwork. The document cited some of the largest numbers of human-wildlife conflicts on record — particularly large carnivores attacking livestock — during an extreme drought in 2018.

According to Abrahms' research, weather events have huge implications for the biodiversity, human health, economy and quality of life, among other factors. “But a more focused effort by scientists to consider the influence of climate change on these conflicts could help us predict when these conflicts will occur — perhaps even avoid them,” he believes.

Few studies of human-wildlife conflict link to climate change

“We have been looking in the scientific literature and government reports, but, at most, we see a few dozen researches in this regard”, laments the scientist. 

Some make more direct connections between environmental conditions and human-wildlife contact, such as the whale tangle. Others are more superficial, according to her. "I'm hopeful because we're seeing more and more government agencies recognizing this connection, including very recently the International Union for the Conservation of Nature."

However, Abrahms says there has not yet been such direct recognition by the broader scientific community that climate change will fuel more intense and frequent conflicts between humans and wildlife.

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The researcher believes that this is a complex process. “There are many things involved in creating these conflicts. Understanding them involves understanding the ecosystem as well as the social or economic factors that drive people to use space or resources that put them in competition with animals. Human relationships or attitudes towards wildlife also play a huge role, in terms of how much tolerance people have for coming into contact with wildlife and how they respond to these encounters and potential property damage or economic loss of wildlife. ”.

Ways in which climatic factors influence human-wildlife conflicts

According to the study by Abrahms and his team, many cases are a clear increase in conflict during or shortly after an extreme weather event, such as the marine heat wave that fueled an increase in the involvement of whales on the west coast or an increase in conflict. between humans and wildlife during and after the severe drought in Botswana.

“But we also see an increase in conflicts due to climate variability,” says the professor. “A two-decade study in New Mexico reported that the frequency of bears blacks who come into contact with humans and animals varies with the El Niño / La Niña cycle. Basically, La Niña creates dry conditions for the bears, and they roam more widely in search of food and explore alternative food resources — and then you see more reports of bears coming into contact with livestock, damaging property and sifting through garbage.” .

Long-term climate change also creates conflict. According to the research, in India, long-term climate change has reduced the amount of grazing by blue sheep, or bharal, who have moved to lower altitudes to feed on human crops. “This is a conflict in itself, but the bharal movement has also attracted snow leopards, which creates additional problems,” explains Abrahms.

In parts of West and Central Africa, studies have linked increasing populations of baboons, whose predators have been exterminated by people, to increased child labour. Baboons can be very aggressive and attack crops and, in response, children have been removed from school to protect farmland.

These conflicts can also fuel the emergence of disease. In the US, the removal of cougars has led to an explosion in deer populations, which in turn has led to an increase in Lyme disease, caused by ticks that feed on the blood of these animals. 

Abrahms says that "new diseases can also arise, because when humans and wildlife come into closer contact, there are opportunities for diseases to jump from animals to people."

With information Phys.org

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