Animals and People Are Clashing More Frequently Thanks to Climate Change, New Study Says

From whales colliding with ships to elephants wandering into villages in search of water, climate impacts have made human-wildlife conflicts a global problem.

Tourists take pictures of a polar bear during a polar bear watching tour, in the Churchill area, Manitoba, Canada, on Aug. 4, 2022. Credit: Olivier Morin/AFP via Getty Images
Tourists take pictures of a polar bear during a polar bear watching tour, in the Churchill area, Manitoba, Canada, on Aug. 4, 2022. Credit: Olivier Morin/AFP via Getty Images

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Climate change is driving more conflicts between humans and wildlife, as expanding development, deepening drought and quickly changing ecosystems force animals and people into new territories where they’re more likely to encounter each other, a new study says. Experts have long called for a concerted effort to address these human-wildlife clashes, which can lead to property damage, as well as injuries and death for both humans and animals.

In fact, human-wildlife conflicts are already the leading cause of decline and extinction among large mammals, the researchers said, which can trigger “the transformation of entire ecosystems.” The encounters can also compound financial struggles for communities and are costing the global economy billions of dollars every year, the scientists added.

The study, published Monday by University of Washington researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change, compiled and examined 30 years of research on the subject, spanning every continent except Antarctica. Taken altogether, the research showed an alarming rise of consequences from the encounters, which the study’s authors said highlights the “extraordinary breadth” of the problem.

It’s the second peer-reviewed study published within a month to document the rise of human-wildlife conflicts, defined generally as any interaction between people and animals that results in a negative outcome such as injury or death. The second study, published Jan. 31 in the journal PLOS Biology, found that attacks on humans by carnivorous animals have increased steadily since 1950, linked largely to growing human populations in new areas.

Monday’s study found that in just 30 years, the killing of polar bears by humans tripled in Canada, the number of whales that became entangled in fishing gear rose 400 percent, shark attacks on humans jumped 360 percent and deadly encounters generally increased in several countries, including Nepal, Tanzania, Mexico, Kenya and South Sudan. In South Sudan, 23 people died from crocodile attacks between 2018 and 2020 alone.

“We were surprised that it’s so globally prevalent, this was one of the big takeaways of this paper,” Briana Abrahms, a wildlife biologist from the University of Washington and the lead author of the Nature Climate Change study, told The Guardian. “There hasn’t been as much recognition as there should be that climate change is exacerbating these conflicts. We might see new conflicts in places they haven’t been in the past, as well as conflicts intensifying in places they have been in the past.”

While the causes of this upward trend are myriad and nuanced, climate change appears to be playing an outsized role. Monday’s study found that shifts in temperature and rainfall, both short-term extreme weather events and long-term changes to the climate, were the most common drivers of human-wildlife conflicts, cited in more than 80 percent of the case studies its authors examined. 

Dwindling sea ice in the Arctic is forcing polar bears to hunt for food closer to human activity. Blue whales are changing their migration patterns as marine heatwaves become more frequent, which has increased their collisions with ships. Climate change is also helping some wildlife populations thrive, such as barnacle geese in Scotland and guanacos—a relative of llamas and alpacas—in Chile, where they’re increasingly competing with livestock over resources and spurring retaliation from farmers.

The problem is particularly acute in regions where the consequences of the climate crisis are overlapping with one of its leading causes—agricultural development. At a famed national park that borders Kenya and Tanzania near the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, thousands of animals died last year as competing interests between humans and wildlife were aggravated by warming temperatures and a lack of rain.

As more people have moved into the region, my colleague Georgina Gustin reported, they’ve fenced off their farms and ranches, in part to protect their property, crops and livestock from predators and grazers searching for food. But this has choked off ancient migratory routes or paths to watering holes that some animals have used for decades or more, while also shrinking the area of pasture available to them. The result is that wild animals, notably elephants, are now breaking down fences and gorging on crops, often leading to deadly consequences for both humans and wildlife as farmers attempt to defend their livelihood.

Scientists and environmental advocates have long called for a concerted global effort to address this problem, mostly to no avail. But in a breakthrough moment last year, delegates in Montreal at the United Nations’ annual biodiversity conference finally ratified a landmark agreement that included a global target “to minimize human-wildlife conflict.” The exact details of that target, and how nations will achieve it, however, are still being negotiated.

Alexandra Zimmermann, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and a leading global expert on human-wildlife conflicts, said in a recent opinion essay that those details will ultimately determine if the U.N. agreement is successful. Specifically, she said, the plan will need to strike a delicate balance, setting reliable global standards for tracking incidents and measuring progress, while also being mindful that each nation will have its own unique needs and challenges.

In fact, the biggest hurdle to addressing the problem isn’t the tensions between animals and people, Zimmermann said, but the tensions people have with each other.

“For example, although wolves can and do occasionally kill sheep in Europe and North America, conflict primarily arises between those who want to cull wolves and those who want to protect them,” she said. “Because of this, resolving conflicts about wildlife is not a simple matter of installing fences, lights or noise makers to keep animals away from crops, property or livestock. Resolving human-wildlife conflicts means resolving divisions and disharmony between people.”

More Top Climate News

A ‘Climate Solution’ That Spies Worry Could Trigger War: If you’ve read about geoengineering, specifically the idea of partially blocking out the sun to help cool Earth’s atmosphere, you know it’s a highly controversial topic opposed by many climate scientists. Apparently, U.S. security officials were also worried and they held training exercises last year over how to prevent war from breaking out should a nation attempt to blot out the sun, Michael Birnbaum reports for The Washington Post. Complicating matters further is the fact that some 60 climate scientists, including prominent figures in the science community, signed a letter this week urging that more research be done on geoengineering.

Kerry Says He’ll Stay On as Biden’s Top Climate Diplomat: John Kerry will stay in his role as President Joe Biden’s special climate envoy at least through this year’s United Nations climate talks set for December in Dubai, ending speculation that the United States’ top climate change diplomat may soon depart, Zack Colman reports for POLITICO. Kerry’s departure would have been a notable blow to Biden’s ambitious climate agenda ahead of next year’s presidential election. Biden has lost other top climate officials, including Gina McCarthy and Cecilia Martinez, with some former staffers saying they’re “being worked to death” to fulfill the president’s promises.

Red States Lead the United States in Solar and Wind Production, New Report Shows: New data shows Republican-led states are leading the nation for electricity produced from renewable sources like solar and wind, Aliya Uteuova reports for the Guardian. Wind and solar capacity grew 16 percent last year, compared to 2021, with states like Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Florida at the top of the chart. The new report is the latest to highlight this trend, which I wrote about last year. What makes it particularly interesting is that not a single GOP lawmaker voted for the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, but their states are now benefiting most from the increased clean energy investment the law is spurring.

Today’s Indicator


That’s roughly the proportion of solar and wind projects now ready to be connected to America’s energy grids that have made it through the approval process, u003ca href=u0022 showsu003c/au003e. At least 8,100 projects—the vast majority of which were solar and wind—awaited connection approval last year.