Human settlement has resulted in significant habitat destruction and have exacerbated human–elephant conflicts.
Africa’s iconic elephants have ranges in three dozen countries on the continent, yet in some of these nations their habitats are fast shrinking owing to encrouchment and other threats.
One such country is Ethiopia where tens of thousands of illegal settlements are posing a threat to jumbos living within a wildlife sanctuary, according to researchers at the University of Oxford and the Born Free Foundation.
Using satellite data, the scientists have found that the number of illegally constructed houses within the Babile Elephant Sanctuary in eastern Ethiopia grew from 18,000 units in 2006 to more than 50,000 by 2017. Of especial concern is that around 32,000 houses were found to be located in the area where elephants forage for food, increasing the likelihood of human-elephant conflicts.
“This settlement, coupled with high demand for natural resources, has resulted in significant habitat destruction and could also have exacerbated human-elephant conflict,” two scientists who published a study on the findings write in their paper.
The sanctuary, which occupies nearly 700,000 hectares, encompasses a varied habitat with lowlands and river valleys as well as highland areas. Yet continued encrouchment by people into protected areas is compromising the integrity of those habitats, posing grave risks to the area’s elephants.
In effect, the savannah elephants in the sanctuary are being squeezed out of their own habitats as Ethiopia’s population boom, which has increased the country’s population to 110 million, has led to a chronic shortage of land and increased demands for natural resources.
“The situation in the Babile Elephant Sanctuary is critical,” warns Emily Neil, a postgraduate researcher at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment who was one of the authors of the study. “There are now only around 250 elephants left. Without the rapid resolution of the many human issues putting pressure on the elephants it is difficult to foresee a future in which this population of elephants survives.”
A solution lies in generating poverty-eradication and other humanitarian projects around the sanctuary to ensure that locals won’t remain dependent on scarce natural resources, the scientists say.
“[R]ural and political stability is required if efforts to protect wildlife are to be successful. Unless these issues are resolved and the integrity of the Sanctuary is restored, this elephant population will be extirpated in the near future,” they explain.