Modelling continental range shift of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) under a changing climate and land cover: implications for future conservation of the species
Climate and land use change are anticipated to alter the distribution of wildlife, due to their impact on the quantity and quality of forage availability, water cycle, as well as competition for key resources. Using an ensemble of species distribution models (SDMs), we sought to predict changes in the distribution of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in response to climatic and land cover change in Africa. We found that African elephant distribution is driven predominantly by changes in temperature followed by changes in precipitation and land cover. Our results show that 17.1% of the continent shows high suitability for L. africana under the current climatic conditions, while 56.6% is unsuitable under similar climatic conditions. The modelled current suitability shows that high and moderately suitable areas for L. africana are predicted to occur in the eastern, southern and part of western Africa. In 2050, unsuitable area for elephants under Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 4.5 and RCP 8.5 is projected to increase by 12.7% and 14.1%, respectively. In contrast, the highly suitable area for L. africana is projected to decrease by 51.3% and 67.6% under RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5, respectively. Compared to the current climatic conditions, in 2070 highly suitable areas for L. africana are projected to decrease by 74.5% and 85.9% under RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5 scenarios, respectively. Climate change and land cover change are expected to worsen and become one of the major drivers for the loss of several wildlife species like the African elephant due to their impact on availability of water and forage. Therefore, conservation and management of elephant populations under global change calls for carefully designed migratory corridors and conservation of trans-frontier landscapes to enable dispersal of the elephants and other associated species to more conducive environments.
Keywords: climate change, drought, habitat loss, range shift, seasonality, species distribution modelling