Climate change and wildlife
Many of the world’s threatened species live in areas that will be severely affected by climate change. And climate change is happening too quickly for many species to adapt. Here are just a few examples of how climate change may increase the challenges we’re already facing in our conservation work.
Tiger numbers in the wild have declined to as few as 3,200, largely due to poaching and habitat loss. Climate change is likely to result in increasing sea levels and further risk of fire in the already fragmented habitats where tigers live. For example, in the Sundarbans swamp forests of north-east India and Bangladesh, the sea level is rising. The Indian Sundarbans is home to around 100 Bengal tigers. With sea levels rising, important habitats could be lost. This could bring tigers into closer contact with people, which could lead to further conflict between people and tigers – and possible fatalities on both sides.
Warming in the Himalayas has already occurred at three times the global average. This is prime snow leopard habitat and continued warming will cause their range to shrink as the treeline moves higher up the mountains. This will not only fragment and isolate snow leopard populations, but it will severely affect their prey too – causing some of the alpine pastures that blue sheep and Himalayan tahr (the snow leopard’s main prey) rely on to be replaced by forest. Declines in the snow leopard’s natural prey are already causing snow leopards to take livestock – and farmers will kill them to protect their livelihoods. So any further declines in natural prey will only make this problem worse.
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Greater one-horned rhinos live on floodplain grasslands in northern India and Nepal. They rely on the annual monsoon to bring sufficient and timely rain, to replenish the vegetation they feed on. But a changing climate could disrupt this seasonal pattern and bring regular droughts or floods. In 2013 large areas of rhino habitat in northern India were flooded – resulting in the death of several rhinos. Some drowned, and others were displaced from their natural habitat, increasing their risk of being poached.
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Orang-utans are already endangered – largely due to the clearance of their forest home to make way for oil palm plantations. Climate change will put additional pressures on the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia. With warmer temperatures and a decrease in rainfall, climate change is likely to increase the incidence of forest fires. Peat swamp forests – a key habitat for orang-utans – are particularly vulnerable. This could lead to more intense droughts which can increase the risk of forest fires – which are already threatening orang-utan habitat. In 2007, as many as 1,000 orang-utans were killed in uncontrolled fires caused by dry forest conditions. Changes in rainfall could also affect the availability of the orang-utan’s main food source – fruit. Limited food supplies can affect their breeding success.
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In Africa, changes in rainfall will either bring too much rain - causing floods - or too little rain - bringing more drought and wildfires. These changes may cause some areas to simply become unsuitable for certain species to live in. African elephants can drink up to 225 litres of water each day so access to drinking water is very important. Changing weather patterns will mean elephants may have to travel further in search of water – moving outside of protected areas and coming into increasing contact with people. This increases the risk of them being poached, and also of them coming into conflict with people which can result in fatalities on both sides. And, if protected areas aren’t big enough to allow elephants to migrate to new food and water sources, they can destroy the surrounding habitat.
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The Arctic is warming roughly twice as fast as the global average, causing the ice that polar bears depend on to melt away. The sea ice is melting earlier and forming later each year. This makes it more difficult for females to get onto land in late autumn to den, and onto the sea ice in spring to feed. It means bears are fasting for longer – dramatically reducing their body weight and physical condition and making it harder for them to survive the summer season.
Loss of sea ice also threatens the polar bear’s main prey, seals, which depend on sea ice to raise their young and rest.
Adélie penguins are ‘true’ Antarctic penguins, meaning they spend most of their time in Antarctica. But climate change is reducing the amount of sea ice in parts of the continent. Also, sea ice across the whole of Antarctica is predicted to decline this century. One of the Adélies’ main food sources, krill, breeds and feeds under the sea ice. In part of the Southern Ocean, there’s been a long-term decline in the abundance of Antarctic krill. This may well be due to the reduction in sea ice. With continued warming, this will get worse, reducing the Adélies’ food supplies even more.