Supporting wildlife species in the face of climate change

Sylvia Wasige

Herd of African elephants, giraffe and marabou stork walking in dry Tsavo landscape

Shifting weather patterns have complex impacts on natural systems, many of which are the cornerstone of Africa’s economic developments as it grows rapidly. The continent’s biodiversity is a vital natural resource at stake as overall temperatures rise. With rainfall projected to increase in eastern Africa but significantly reduce in the south, the risk of flash floods and harsh droughts is high.

Many iconic wildlife species have been pushed close to extinction due to various non-climate stressors like poaching and illegal hunting in the last few decades. Over time, climate change has emerged as a silent threat to wildlife, as changing weather patterns trigger shifts in habitat composition, forage availability as well as access to water. The impacts to ecosystems are far-reaching: wildlife reproduction and the survival rate of young ones can lower, changing the competitive relationship between species.

Conserving the water requirements of key species

As the largest mammal on land, the elephant has significant water needs. One elephant can use up to 150-300 liters per day for drinking, bathing and spraying water on their bodies to cool down. These communal water-based activities are central to their social makeup as a species. For the black rhino, males only establish breeding territories where there is permanent surface water while the water-dependent white rhino need frequent mud baths for thermoregulation and keeping off parasites.

Hippo spend over 12 hours per day in water bodies ranging from rivers to man-made ponds during dry seasons. The depletion of natural water habitats due to rising temperatures presents the species with a variety of challenges. Overcrowding allows for the faster transmission of diseases while infighting over shrinking territories has resulted in the loss of males.  

Full portrait of cheetah on the prowl


Threats exacerbated by climate change

Human-wildlife conflict takes various forms outside protected area—from poaching, livestock killing, and crop destruction to habitat encroachment. Climate change impacts like droughts, habitat loss and spread of diseases has led to increased conflicts in wildlife areas.

The lion is just one iconic species that continues to bear the brunt of retaliatory killing as a result of human-wildlife conflict. It has reduced in population size and geographic range across sub-Saharan Africa. Lions are also vulnerable to extreme weather conditions like droughts, which can disrupt their reproductive cycles. The cheetah is already suffering from a lack of genetic diversity due to inbreeding in fragmented populations—reproduction rates are poor and the few offspring that survive are more vulnerable to disease.

However, the cheetah’s high resiliency to drought conditions as well as their ability to live in a variety of places means that, like the leopard, the species may be able to tolerate climatic fluctuations. If their preferred habitats can be secured, these big cat species have a good chance of surviving climate change as they will be able to find more suitable living conditions in response to shifting weather patterns.

Habitat loss has drastically reduced populations of giraffe that were once widespread across the continent. Although they are also able to withstand extended dry seasons, ecological limits like rivers or man-made structures may impede their ability to disperse as climatic conditions change.  

Lone elephant on a hot day in Tsavo during a period of low rainfall


Climate adaptation strategies for a developing continent

Although different wildlife species experience climate change in different ways, many vulnerabilities are common. As such, adaptation strategies can be implemented across priority landscapes. In addition to securing natural water resources and habitats, wildlife migration routes must be protected to ensure more suitable habitats for at-risk species and enable genetic exchange between populations.

African Wildlife Foundation maintains critical wildlife corridors through various participatory schemes that minimize human-wildlife conflict and incentivize land protection. Ecological monitoring in protected areas and buffer zones allows rangers to create adaptive conservation plans to protect vulnerable wildlife populations targeted by poachers and illegal hunters. AWF’s initiatives limit illegal wildlife trade by deploying sniffer dogs at major ports on trafficking routes and running awareness campaigns in demand centers.

While Africa is not a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, massive developments in infrastructure, agriculture and extractive industry across the continent often come with the clearing of wildlife habitats. Adaptation strategies must manage development sustainably to mitigate the climate-related impacts on wildlife and wildlands.

> Read more about how our conservation projects maintain healthy ecosystems

About the Author

Sylvia Wasige is a Species Conservation Project Officer at African Wildlife Foundation. As a trained conservation ecologist, she gained on-the-ground experience through AWF's Conservation Leadership & Management Program and continues to sharpen her interest in environmental planning, monitoring and evaluation, illegal wildlife trade, species conservation, and environmental governance.