CSU researcher analyzes human-elephant conflict, vulnerability in the face of climate change

Human Dimensions of Natural Resources Assistant Professor, Jonathan Salerno, collaborated with researchers around the world to research the complexities of the changing environment within the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area of Southern Africa. Photo: Jonathan Salerno

Human-wildlife conflict is a challenging issue in the conservation sciences. Whether it be the complexities of wolf reintroduction or African savanna elephants living alongside communities, the impacts of human-wildlife conflict on people’s livelihoods can be significant.

Despite all that is known about the challenges of human-wildlife conflict, measuring the impact of human-elephant conflict on human livelihoods is more nuanced than simple trade-offs in sustaining either wildlife or people. An international team of researchers including Jonathan Salerno, assistant professor in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, spent three years investigating these dynamics among wildlife, people and environment for a transboundary conservation area in southern Africa.

In a recent study, “Wildlife impacts and changing climate pose compounding threats to human food security,” published by Current Biology, the team used interdisciplinary approaches across a wide study area in southern Africa to better understand how climate change interacts with human-elephant conflict to affect household food insecurity.

“The project as a whole is focused on understanding human vulnerability and adaptive capacity in the context of environmental change,” Salerno said. “Taking a systems-level view of this problem is important because we’re studying human vulnerability, which can be defined and impacted by many different things.”

The project was funded by the National Science Foundation in 2016. At that time, the team began research across the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, the world’s largest terrestrial transboundary conservation area, extending across five African countries.

“We were interested in vulnerability influenced by a number of factors, not only from changing climate and wildlife, but from slowly occurring changes to vegetation and the landscape, and from larger policy or economic factors,” Salerno said. “By taking this wider systems approach, we were able to look across social and ecological impacts, as well as how people may adapt in response. What we found, not surprisingly, is that crop depredation caused primarily by elephants increases household food insecurity on top of already challenging farming conditions.”

Another important aspect of the project that Salerno and the team found was that the people within these affected communities have the adaptive capacity to gather food resources and buffer the impacts of elephant conflict and short rain seasons. Although the individual communities may be resilient, larger institutions such as governments and aid organizations are not currently supporting effective risk mitigation or risk reduction strategies for households.

“With these communities’ abilities to adapt, governments should look at ways that enhance that adaptive capacity,” Salerno said. “This could mean allowing communities to make more of their own decisions about where they can collect resources, create elephant movement zones and manage lands for tourism.”

“Communities need to have a clear voice in the larger discussion about conservation policy and the ways that they can be partners in addressing human-elephant conflict.”

In regard to the conservation of African savanna elephants, Salerno added that in addition to habitat protection, there needs to be appropriate resources and funding put toward human-wildlife conflict mitigation programs.

For more information, visit the NSF website or visit the KAZAVA Story Map Series website for an inside look at the project and the team.