Elephants are the ‘gardeners of the jungle’ – and that can help save the planet

St. Lewis, Missouri – Elephants have the ability to be “gardeners of the jungle,” a skill that may hold the key to saving the environment from climate change. Researchers from Saint Louis University say that the largest land animals on Earth are slowing down global warming. They eat low-carbon-density trees, creating more space for green spaces that store more.

Unfortunately, the five-ton creatures, prized for their ivory tusks, have been pushed to the brink of extinction by poachers–even though they are vital to maintaining Africa’s biodiversity.

“Elephants have been hunted by humans for thousands of years,” senior author Stephen Blake, PhD, assistant professor of biology at Saint Louis University, said in a media release.

As a result, African forest elephants are seriously endangered. The argument that everyone loves elephants has not garnered enough support to stop the killing. Turning the argument for elephant conservation towards the role forest elephants play in maintaining forest biodiversity, that losing elephants means losing forest biodiversity, hasn’t worked either, as numbers continue to decline,” Blake continues.

“Now we can add the powerful conclusion that if we lose forest elephants, we will do global damage by mitigating climate change. Policymakers must take the importance of forest elephants in mitigating climate change seriously to generate the support needed for elephant conservation. The role Forest elephants in our global environment are too important to ignore.”

Elephants literally cut down trees that are less useful

Elephant numbers have seen a significant decline over the past century. There are now only about 400,000 in Africa, and an estimated 30,000 in Asia. A century ago, they were a common sight across both continents. Today, elephants also face additional threats from habitat loss and global warming.

The study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesdocumenting their impact on carbon sequestration for the first time. The new study found that if they disappeared, the rainforests of central and western Africa—the second largest on Earth—would lose six to nine percent of their ability to capture atmospheric carbon.

Some trees have light wood while others are heavy, low and high carbon, respectively. The former grows faster, as it rises above other plants and trees to reach sunlight. The latter needs less sunlight and is able to thrive in shade.

Elephants and other herbivores affect the abundance of these plants by feeding primarily on low-carbon-intensity trees. They are more palatable and nutritious. This preference “thinns” the forest, much like loggers, enhancing their preferred species. This phenomenon reduces competition, providing more sunlight, space and soil nutrients for high-carbon trees to thrive.

“Elephants eat a lot of leaves from a lot of trees, and they do a lot of damage when they eat,” Blake adds. “They strip leaves from trees, rip off an entire branch or uproot a sapling when eating, and our data shows that most of this damage is done to low-carbon-intensive trees. If there are a lot of high-carbon trees around, that’s one less competitor, which elephants eliminate.”

Elephants also “plant” their own trees

Elephants are also excellent dispersers of seeds of high-carbon density trees that produce large, nutritious fruits for them to eat. These seeds pass through the intestines of elephants intact. When released through their feces, they prepare to germinate and grow into some of the largest trees in the forest.

“Elephants are the gardeners of the forest,” says the researcher. “They are planting the forest with high-carbon-intensive trees and getting rid of the ‘grasses,’ which are the low-carbon-intensive trees. They are doing an enormous amount of work to maintain the diversity of the forest.”

Elephants are directly linked to influencing carbon levels in the atmosphere. High-carbon-intensity trees store more carbon from the atmosphere in their wood than low-carbon-intensity trees, which combats global warming.

“Elephants have multiple societal benefits,” Blake explains. “Children all over the world play with stuffed elephants in their bedrooms. African forest elephants also enhance the diversity of the rainforest in many ways.”

It stresses the importance of forest elephant conservation in the Congo Basin and West Africa. Societies are already “functionally extinct” in many areas. The numbers are very low and they don’t have much environmental impact.

Blake concludes, “The illegal killing of elephants and the illegal trade are still active.”

“Ten million elephants once roamed Africa, now there are fewer than 500,000, most of the population living in isolated enclaves. These elephants range from critically endangered to critically endangered, with their numbers declining by more than 80 percent in the last 30 years or more. Elephants are protected by national and international law, yet poaching continues. These illegal killings must stop to prevent the extinction of forest elephants. Now we have a choice. As a global community, we can continue to hunt these highly social and intelligent animals and watch them go extinct, or we can find ways to stop them This illegal activity. Save the elephants and help save the planet, it really is that simple.”

Southwest News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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