THE African elephant is better positioned to adapt to climate change and variability, but its greatest future threat will come from neither poaching nor food scarcity; it’s fresh water availability to cause headaches, a new study has found. Elephants are a playful lot, huge as they are, and water is not only central to drinking, but also play and a kind of bathing; bathing in the mud, and sometimes water proper.
In a day, an adult 6-tonne elephant uses between 150 and 300 litres of water, 15 times as much as Africa’s per capita consumption, or the equivalent of 120 000 drums of 200-litre capacity each, in Zimbabwe’s case, home to an herd of 80 000.
“. . .the biggest concern for elephants is their need for large amounts of fresh water, and the influence this has on their daily activities, reproduction and migration,” said the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), global conservation body, in a report released last week, African Elephant and Climate Change.
The WWF considers the elephant’s vulnerability to water scarcity as “high.” Vulnerability measures the extent to which humans, animals or geophysical features can or cannot cope with climate change.
A vulnerability reading of “high” means the ability to cope is low. Now, within the elephant nation, water defines life in more ways than one.
“Droughts can effect populations immediately by increasing mortality or reducing conception rates,” said the WWF, noting also that there is strength in numbers — the 500 000 total African herd has been key to building climate resilience.
To reproduce at the highest level, elephants will need rainfall to be at its highest. Weird, isn’t it? Others require just a single fertile male seed. Not really. “Reproduction is tied to rainfall,” the report explained.
“Birth peaks coincide with rainfall peaks. Drought inhibits conception through impacts on vegetation that subsequently affect the female’s ability to come into breeding condition.”
Climate change threatens to disrupt (or already is) this order of the natural. The UN’s expert panel on climate change was high on confidence rainfall will decline in southern Africa and that hot days and droughts will frequent by mid century, according to its Fifth Assessment Report last year.
Another World Bank report in 2012 predicted that in a 4 degrees Celsius warmer world, towards which the world is gravitating, evaporation in lakes, rivers, dams and streams across southern Africa will reach 50 percent by 2080, causing widespread freshwater shortages.
In conducting the study, the WWF determined vulnerability using the factors of sensitivity, adaptative capacity, exposure and other threats.
The Fund assessed issues such as “the inability of the species to persist, as is, under changing climatic conditions and the ability of the species to respond to changes in climate.”
It also examined the extent of current and future impacts of climate change on elephants “and any other relevant threats, as well as the human responses to climate change that exacerbate these threats.”
Not Good Enough
If temperature rise comes in at the projected WB margins, chances that elephants will become susceptible to diseases such as anthrax, foot and mouth, and rinderpest is “medium,” a rung below danger, but not safe, as elephants are heat intolerant, a major drive for the mud baths.