Climate Crisis Increases Human-Wildlife Conflict
In 2019, an archipelago in the Russian Arctic Ocean declared a state of emergency when an aurora of polar bears muscled their way into a settlement and began nosing through the garbage.
At the time, experts said that the climate crisis likely caused the polar bear invasion, as dwindling sea ice forced them to seek food from human dumpsters instead. Now, a new study led by researchers from the University of Washington (UW) finds that this was not an isolated incident.
“We found evidence of conflicts between people and wildlife exacerbated by climate change on six continents, in five different oceans, in terrestrial systems, in marine systems, in freshwater systems – involving mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and even invertebrates,” study lead author and UW assistant biology professor Briana Abrahms said in a press release. “Although each individual case has its own array of different causes and effects, these climate-driven conflicts are really ubiquitous.”
The paper, published in Nature Climate Change, was a review of three decades of research, according to The Guardian. The research team looked for peer-reviewed documentation of conflicts between humans and wildlife that could be clearly traced to the impacts of climate change and focused on 49 incidents. Further, they found that the number of relevant studies multiplied by four in the decade of the study period.
Polar bears have historically been the poster animals for the climate crisis, and the paper found that encounters between bears and humans in Churchill, Manitoba, in Canada — already considered the “polar bear capital of the world” — multiplied by three between 1970 and 2005. However, the paper also turned up conflicts in less expected places, from Sumatra to Scotland.
“We were surprised that it’s so globally prevalent, this was one of the big takeaways of this paper,” Abrahms told The Guardian.
More than 80 percent of the incidents were caused by either temperature or rainfall changes. For example, a drought in western Tanzania in 2009 forced elephants to forage local fields for food, the press release explained. Subsistence farmers, desperate to protect their crops, sometimes resorted to killing the elephants that could munch through two to three acres a day. In another case, higher temperatures in both the air and ocean off South Africa — exacerbated by El Niño — led to an uptick in shark attacks.
Overall, 45 percent of the studies reviewed described an incident that led to wildlife injury or death, while 43 percent of the incidents led to a human injury or death, according to The Guardian. While these findings are troubling, the scientists hope that by studying these increasing conflicts, they can discover ways to help prevent them.
“Identifying these pathways allows for developing mitigation strategies and proactive policies to limit the impacts of human-wildlife conflict on biodiversity conservation and human well-being in a changing climate,” they wrote in the abstract.
Indeed, one of the incidents they reviewed had a happy ending. In 2014 and 2015, researchers noticed that a record number of blue and humpback whales were getting tangled in fishing gear off the California coast. Eventually, they figured out this was because of a record breaking marine heat wave in the Pacific from 2014 to 2016 dubbed “the warm blob,” according to the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).
“With the ocean warming, we saw a shift in the ecosystem and in the feeding behavior of humpback whales that led to a greater overlap between whales and crab fishing gear,” UCSC applied mathematics researcher and lead author on a paper explaining the phenomenon Jarrod Santora said in the university press release.
In response to the data, California changed its fishing regulations to be more responsive to where and when whales are likely to be based on ocean conditions.
“These examples show us that once you know the root causes of a conflict, you can design interventions to help both people and wildlife,” Abrahms said in the press release. “We can change.”