Determining the interaction between extrinsic and intrinsic drivers of variation in population abundance through time continues to challenge ecologists. Chamaillé-Jammes and colleagues (this issue) examined African elephant time series to explore how water availability alters the density feedback mechanisms restricting population growth. The relationship between population growth rate and density shifted from an upward convex to a more linear form after controlling for rainfall. Spatial variation in water availability also attenuated density dependence as elephants adjusted their distribution relative to current environmental conditions. This work has important climate change implications for the conservation management of African herbivores.