The elephant in the room: global warming-induced droughts threaten the future of Earth’s largest land mammal

Environment | Grasslands

By Sophie Coxon, Freelance Writer

Published August 20th, 2022

The African elephant is emblematic of the savannah and an animal many feel a strong admiration for. However, as global warming intensifies, recent droughts in East Africa are adding to pressures threatening the future of this iconic species.

In the sweeping savannah of Kenya, a herd of African elephants scrape at the parched and dusty ground in search of some life-saving water. The spring rains are late yet again, prolonging the dry season and pushing many species to the edge of survival.

Droughts are exacerbating the already arid conditions of the savannah. | Dennis Groom / Unsplash

The African bush elephant is the largest land mammal alive today, weighing up to six tonnes and reaching 11 feet at shoulder height. These gentle herbivores live in close social groups, led by mature, wise females that possess extensive knowledge of the best feeding and watering spots, vital to the survival of the herd.

Elephants roam across 37 African countries, commonly walking long distances in search of food and water. A single adult requires over 200 litres of water and 300 kilograms of vegetation per day, meaning they are almost constantly on the move and have little time for rest.

Elephants are a keystone species, providing benefits to many other species in the savannah ecosystem. By feeding on the fruits and nuts of trees, elephants break the hard seed pods in their stomachs, which are then deposited in a fertile pile of dung and often dispersed long distances from the parent tree. Over 30% of local tree species rely on elephants for successful seed dispersal, making them an essential part of the environment.

‘Elephants roam across 37 African countries, commonly walking long distances in search of food and water.’

An elephant’s ability to smell water from over five kilometres away, and dig out the source using their trunks, can provide life-saving water to many other species during periods of drought. The footprints left behind by the herds are also deep enough to collect rain and dew, another important water source for many other species.

In the last 20 years, Eastern Africa has experienced increasingly intense and prolonged droughts thought to be exacerbated by global warming. This area of semi-arid savannah harbours many endangered species alongside the African bush elephant, including the Somali giraffe, roan antelope and Grévy’s zebra.

However, the future of these species is becoming increasingly grim as droughts sweep the land and water holes are dry for longer periods. This also creates a lack of important food, as the lush green grazing areas and shrubland become withered wastelands. Animals are struggling to find enough nutrition to survive, and as elephants require such a vast quantity of food each day, they are faced with a huge challenge.

The mother-offspring bond is exceptionally strong in elephants. | Hu Chen / Unsplash

The drought conditions are especially stressful for mothers with young calves. The mother-offspring bond is exceptionally strong in elephants, with calves being nursed for six years and relying heavily on their mother throughout this time. Elephants also exhibit allomothering, where other females help to nurse the calf, creating a strong communal bond across the entire herd.

Due to recent droughts, mothering female elephants are struggling to find enough water and food for optimal nutrition, meaning the milk they provide to the calf is insufficient for growth. Calves are therefore dehydrated and malnourished, remain underdeveloped and are too weak to walk the long distances required to find much-needed water and food sources.

Herds are increasingly being observed remaining at waterholes for unnaturally long periods, rather than moving on as normal, suggesting they do not want to risk leaving without the security of knowing another water source exists nearby.

‘Due to recent droughts, mothering female elephants are struggling to find enough water and food for optimal nutrition.’

This is leaving mother elephants with an excruciating decision; to remain with their frail young at the waterholes and starve to death as the vegetation is depleted, or to go in search of new water and vegetation, and leave their calf to die in the heat, alone and unprotected.

Elephants already face extreme threats from extensive poaching due to the growing demand for ivory. The added stress of starvation, in intensely hot conditions, only adds to the threats these animals face daily.

In Tsavo National Park, Kenya, a staggering 70 elephants have succumbed to dehydration, malnourishment and fatigue due to drought since August 2021. However, there is hope. A team of park rangers have been rescuing and caring for abandoned elephant calves, found throughout the park in various states of emaciation.

Tackling climate change can help prevent elephants from suffering the effects of drought. | Marthijn Brinks / Unsplash

The young elephants are nursed back to health with adequate water, formulated milk, and cognitive stimulation, with daily walks in the forest and a strong group bond between both rangers and elephants.

As elephants remain within a 10-metre radius of their mother for the first eight to nine years of their life, the rangers play an important parental role in the calves’ recovery, providing love and reassurance, and even sleeping in the elephant shelters to provide a sense of security throughout the night.

The park is also working to create sand dams, which can collect and hold water underground. After just two years, they can supply water to many villages and wildlife throughout the dry season.

‘Herds are increasingly being observed remaining at waterholes for unnaturally long periods.’

The dams are simple to build, low cost, and help to recharge groundwater aquifers by allowing a water reserve to build up during the rainy season. This innovative engineering could be a spark of hope against an increasingly dry future, for both people and elephants in eastern Africa.

However, despite these engineering efforts, the root of the problem cannot be ignored: climate change is happening and it is happening fast. We need to act now, or beautiful creatures and entire landscapes will be changed or lost forever.

Featured Image: Nam Anh | Unsplash

Ali A. (2022) ‘East Africa: Saving East Africa's Wildlife From Recurring Drought.’ AllAfrica. Available at: [Accessed July 22nd, 2022]

Daly N. (2022) ‘For orphaned elephants, friends may be key to stress relief.’ National Geographic. Available at: [Accessed July 22nd, 2022]

The Water Project (2022) ‘How Sand Dams Work.’ The Water Project. Available at: [Accessed July 22nd, 2022]

Tsavo National Park (2022) ‘Tsavo National Park Elephants.’ Tsavo National Park, Kenya. Available at: [Accessed July 22nd, 2022]

World Wildlife Fund (2022) ‘African Elephant World Wildlife Fund. Available at: [Accessed July 22nd, 2022].

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