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While most are familiar with the impact of climate change and rising temperatures on animals such as polar bears, few are aware of one of the biggest threats to endangered animals: the climate change coping mechanisms initiated by humans.
A serious, mostly unknown impact of climate change on animals is the way in which humans react to climate change, according to Nikhil Advani, a lead specialist on climate, communities and biodiversity at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Humans and wildlife compete for diminishing sources of water and, according to Advani, this is happening in many places around the world.
Advani has found that certain human actions are negatively affecting at-risk species, including giant pandas, snow leopards and mountain gorillas.
Due to rising temperatures, communities are shifting their activities to higher elevations, according to Advani. This movement causes people and agriculture to encroach on giant panda territory. Giant pandas, which are considered vulnerable, live at these higher elevations mainly in the mountains of western China.
The “human component,” as Advani calls it, is also an issue for snow leopards, which are considered vulnerable. Communities are taking their animals to higher elevations, and as a result there is increased competition for snow leopard prey as well as more opportunities to contract diseases.
The mountain gorilla, which is critically endangered, also suffers due to human actions. “We’ve found a number of reports of people entering the park to collect water because the rivers that feed their villages used to flow year-round, now during the dry season they dry up,” Advani said.
When people enter protected parks for water, they often set snares targeted for animals such as antelope but often catch mountain gorillas instead. “When your entire population comprises of 880 individuals, even removing just a few is a really big deal,” Advani said.
“It’s a very complicated thing but in many of these cases the driver is changing temperatures or changing rainfall, and so in cases like this you see human's coping mechanisms to climate change affecting species.”
Advani’s team at the WWF has done assessments on six different species, including African elephants, Asian elephants, mountain gorillas, snow leopards, giant pandas and monarch butterflies. Advani’s team has found that this cause and effect relationship with humans is one of the biggest threats to these species.
Advani has developed an entire program within WWF to better examine the way that human behavior is changing as a result of climate change, and as a result how that’s affecting wildlife. “Climate Crowd” is a program which is used “to crowdsource information on how rural communities are responding to changes in weather and climate, and how their responses are impacting biodiversity,” according to the WWF website.
The program partners with other organizations in order to collect this data and find less damaging ways for communities to adapt.
In addition to human’s coping mechanisms, Advani said there are four other major effects of climate change on animals, including shifting ranges, pests and diseases, phenology, and the changing availability of food and water.
Shifting habitat ranges
As a way to escape climate change, animals are shifting toward higher altitudes. “The idea is to maintain the climatic envelope that they’re used to,” Advani said.
Pests and disease
Animals are also being negatively impacted through pests and disease.
For example, moose are being infested with ticks because the winter temperatures are not dropping as low as they used to for a long enough period of time, so the ticks are surviving for longer.
“We’re getting reports of individual moose that have as many as 90,000 to 100,000 ticks on one single individual,” Advani said.
Changes in phenology, which means the timing of life cycle events, is also having a wide impact on animals. “Colloquially we’ll say ‘earlier spring' and the idea is that species are responding to warming spring temperatures earlier than they used to be,” Advani said.
Changing availability of food and water
A major impact on animals is the changing availability of food, and especially of water. According to Advani, climate change results in changes of rainfall patterns. “For species like elephants that have very high water requirements, they need up to 300 liters of water a day just for drinking, changing water availability is a really big issue,” Advani said.
For animals that are already endangered, vulnerable or threatened, the effects of climate change, especially the human component, could be the difference between extinction and survival.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is the most commonly used classification system for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species.
The IUCN criteria for critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable can be found on the IUCN website.
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