African elephants loom over humans like mountains as the largest and heaviest land mammal in the world.  They are a keystone species, and their presence can have a positive impact on the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the survival of certain species.

African elephants are listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List and along with increased poaching incidents and loss of habitat, they are now facing the threat of climate change.  Although elephants do exhibit some flexibility through diverse habitats and feeding on as many as 173 plant species, not all of their characteristics are so climate resilient.

One of the biggest concerns is that these grey and leathery giants consume between 150-300 litres of freshwater per day, and that excludes the amount of water they use to swim and play.  With climate change comes droughts, and there is no region more afflicted by water stress than sub-Saharan Africa.

Elephants do not only depend on water for drink and play, but also rely on rainfall as an environmental cue to reproduction.  Droughts impact the growth of vegetation which in turn prevents conception as it affects female elephants’ ability to enter their fertile period.

African elephants’ climate sensitivity also comes from the fact that they use environmental cues to guide their migration patterns, as they migrate to find suitable water sources and habitat.  While they are able to travel vast distances in a single day, their habitat has become fragmented and is becoming increasingly more so due to habitat loss and human encroachment.  Along with this the temperature increases, unusual heat extremes during summer, and uncertainty of rainfall projections increase African elephants’ climate vulnerability.

Other significant factors that make African elephants vulnerable to climate change include sensitivity to heat, the increased spread of various diseases, long generation time, moderate genetic diversity, and slow reproductive rates.  These factors all contribute to the limited ability of elephants to adapt to a changing climate.

Other threats to African elephants such as poaching and habitat encroachment are also a high risk factor contributing to their climate vulnerability, and these threats could increase as the changing climate begins to affect humans and their livelihoods.  This could result in human-elephant conflict for both habitable space and water.

Climate change is largely anthropogenic, and so it is humans’ responsibility to protect the wildlife affected by it.  For more information and recommended climate-adaptive management strategies for African elephants, visit–2

Photographer: Nicole Rodel

This information was sourced from WWF