Climate change forcing elephants and humans to share space

On 24 May, a flutter of excitement spread through the sun-scorched city of Maroua in northern Cameroon. Earlier in the day, four elephants had become separated from their herd as they migrated from Waza National Park and ended up wandering through the town’s asphalt roads.

Despite being relative neighbours in the country’s semi-arid Far North region, many residents had never seen these huge creatures in the flesh. The phenomenon of elephants venturing into the outskirts of Maroua is a relatively recent occurrence. Curious onlookers took to the streets to follow the wayward visitors.

“It was simply amazing,” says Adamu Hamadou, who was seeing an elephant for the first time. “I used to see them on television only…I never knew elephants were this big.”

Over time, however, the elephants’ confusion turned to anger, and the onlookers’ excitement to panic. The prolonged attention of the growing crowd caused stress and fear among the animals who “waved their ears, poured sand on the crowd, tore off tree branches and threw them”, according to Mohamadou Bachirou, head of the local NGO Concerted Action for Sustainable Development (ACODED). He says that these actions were meant to communicate: “go away, I’m not going to hurt you”.

When the crowd failed to decode this message, one of the elephants trampled on a 21-year-old woman called Bintou, killing her.

“Elephants do not deliberately kill humans except in retaliation,” says Bachirou. “Elephants are not aggressive. Deciphering their language is key to avoiding confrontation.” Unfortunately for both human and elephant populations in Far North Cameroon, confrontations like this look set to rise in frequency. Last month, another elephant herd strayed into the Moulvoudaye district and destroyed 15 hectares of cereal crops. In recent years, elephants from Waza National Park have increasingly left their sanctuary, heading northwards to the Kalamaloué National Park or southwards to the Kalfou Forest Reserve.

Experts attribute these migratory patterns to rising temperatures, reduced rainfall, and more frequent extreme weather events driven by the ongoing climate crisis. In the Sahel region, temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average with maximum temperatures in northern Cameroon now reaching 35-40°C.

This changing climate has led to growing water scarcity, particularly during the dry season, and a shortage of vegetation. A single adult elephant can drink up to 200 litres of water and eat 150 kg of food each day.

“There were 5,000 elephants in the Waza National Park before the 1980s, but with the droughts and climate change…the water problem arose and elephants started migrating long distances in search of water,” says Bachirou.

Local human activities have also exacerbated these challenges. For instance, the construction of the Maga dam near the border of Cameroon and Chad in 1979 has negatively affected water flow in downstream areas. Deforestation, caused by the felling of trees for fuel and construction materials, has led to the loss of elephant habitats. Additionally, growing human populations have settled along elephant migration routes, increasing the likelihood of confrontations when herds are on the move.

“During the rainy season, there is an abundance of water, fodder and trees for the elephants but these resources become scarce during the dry season pushing the elephants to migrate to other forest reserves,” says Emmanuel Danboya, Conservator of the Waza National Park. “When they are returning to the park during the rainy season, their migratory corridors are blocked due to farming and human settlements pushing them to stray into the cities.”

In response to the increasing frequency of such encounters, authorities in Waza National Park have dug 30 waterholes. This has provided a site for animals to drink from, but more than two thirds of the wells dry up in the extreme heat of the dry season. The park staff are now planning to equip at least one of the waterholes with solar-powered water pumps and are hopeful this will ensure constant water availability through the year.

“It is clear that these elephants and other animals will drink from these water holes,” says Danboya. “Many animals have returned, no longer have stress, and are reproducing.”

Conservationists are also engaging with local populations regarding their behaviour. They discourage tree cutting and recommend that locals keep at least 5 km from elephants’ migratory corridors. “This is presently not the case,” says Bachirou. “Some farmers trespass these limits and cultivate [crops] right next to the elephants’ habitats or protected areas.”

The head of ACODED adds that his NGO advises locals to diversify their crops and opt for alternatives to cereals like millet and sorghum, which can serve as a bait to elephants.

“Elephants destroy up to 20 hectares of millets a day,” says Bachirou. “If farmers were to cultivate pepper, they could sell a single bag of it…and the proceeds could in turn be used to buy up to 10 bags of millet. This will limit conflict with elephants since they don’t eat pepper and would hardly destroy it.”

While these initiatives can help in the short-term, experts recognise that much more will need to be done in the long-term to counter the effects of climate change in the national park and broader region.

Emmanuel Teboh, an expert in environmental education in the Far North region, underscores the importance of reforestation efforts. This can help rebuild elephant habitats and mitigate flooding, which not only destroys parts of the park but reduces soil fertility due to erosion. Part of this strategy will involve replanting trees, but given that deforestation is partly driven by the use of wood for fuel, these efforts will also involve providing improved cookstoves and other clean energy sources to local residents, along with education about these alternatives, according to Teboh.

This challenge highlights the interconnected nature of climate change adaptation efforts. The phenomenon of hungry and thirsty elephants venturing into human settlements in northern Cameroon may initially look like an isolated challenge, but the underlying causes are complex and multi-faceted. Both the behaviour of elephants and humans – locally and globally, in driving climate change – are part of the challenge and necessarily part of the solution.

This is why Félix Watang Zieba, a geographer at the University of Maroua, emphasises the “urgent need” to link national, regional, and local adaptation plans and to coordinate actions drawing on both international and local knowledge. “The climate issue must now be integrated into all planning documents,” he says.

  By African Arguments

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