There are only around 415,000 remaining wild African Elephants. In Asia, the situation is worse: there are only around 50,000 elephants remaining. Elephant numbers are in decline due to threats such as poaching for ivory, conflict with humans and habitat loss and degradation.
Habitats are being damaged and destroyed by human expansion for agriculture, settlements and infrastructure. This has increased conflict between us and elephants, as they travel through farmland, trampling crops and damaging houses.
Elephants are charismatic species, at the forefront of many conservation campaigns such as the WWF, but why are they so important? Elephants are known as a keystone species – they have a large effect on their environment and impact the biodiversity surrounding them.
Elephants eat seeds, transport them around in their guts and then ‘plant’ them in their dung. Studies have suggested that some elephants can disperse seeds as far as 57km. Elephant dung is a perfect fertilizer, rich in nutrients to allow seeds to germinate and grow. Elephant seed dispersal provides opportunities for plants to colonize new areas, providing new habitats for a range of animals.
Elephant dung in itself is an important food resource. For example, dung will be collected by dung beetles, which store it as a food resource for their larvae. This provides a food resource for honey badgers, which eat the dung beetle larvae. Elephants also bring down branches, providing fruit and leaves as a food resource to the lower levels.
Elephants dig wells to access water underground. They will use their feet, trunks and tusks to create a hole and reach the water. These elephant-made watering holes are then available for all animals to drink from.
In forests, elephants create clearings by trampling. This encourages alternative plant growth, providing a different habitat within the trees. The clearings allow more light to reach the forest floor giving lower lying plants less competition and a chance to grow. This then promotes biodiversity, providing new niches for organisms to inhabit.
With just this brief overview, it is clear to see that elephants are a critical species within ecosystems and communities. Losing elephants would not mean just losing an animal embedded in our history, but it would create a trophic cascade resulting in the loss of tens of species and habitats.