As the largest of all land mammals, elephants play an important role in keeping ecosystems fertile and maintaining plant populations. These floppy-eared food-providers support the survival of other creatures and contribute to species biodiversity within ecosystems.
People think that elephants destroy nature by cutting down trees, but that is not the case.
There are 4 reasons why the environment needs elephants:
1. Elephants are mega gardeners and modify their environment making room for smaller species and plants to co-exist
Because of their size, there’s not much that can get in an elephant’s way. In forests, elephants create clearings by trampling vegetation. These clearings allow more light to reach the forest floor, giving lower-lying plants a better chance to grow. And, because different types of animals rely on different types of plants, this can promote new species and biodiversity.
Elephants also modify savannah habitats by pulling down trees and breaking up thorny bushes. This assists in keeping the savannah an open plain and supports other species to live in the savannah.
Elephants also bring down branches that may have been too high up for smaller animals to reach. This gives these animals access to more food.
2. Elephants dig wells to access water underground ensuring other animals to have access to food and water
Elephants cut down trees to dig holes in dry river beds. Therefore they use their feet, trunks and tusks to create holes deep enough to tap into underground water sources. These elephant-made watering holes are then available for other animals to drink from and ensure that smaller animal species also have access to food and water.
3. Elephants are the largest seed dispersers on earth.
The diversity in tropical rainforests is so great that you will rarely see two trees of the same species next to each other. It is precisely this great biodiversity that ensures that the green giant lung remains healthy.
Between 75 and 95 percent of tree species in tropical forests depend on animals to spread their seeds. They do that by cleverly packing those seeds in a tasty package such as large fruits with thick shells. The shells surrounding the fruits may be a quarter of an inch thick, and only elephants are large enough and strong enough to break open the fruit. The nutlike pits inside these seeds pass through an elephant’s intestine unharmed.
Elephants love the fruits of different plants and as herds travel over vast rangelands the seeds are spread through their excrement up to 65 km to new locations. After munching on vegetation – that also consists of seeds – elephants transport plant material around in their guts, and then drop them off in mounds of dung. The seed is then deposited with the animal’s dung, which fertilizes the new plant as it germinates and continues to grow.
4. Elephants provide plenty of food and create new habitats for different animals
Elephant dung is the perfect fertiliser since it’s rich in nutrients that allow seeds to germinate and grow. And elephant seed dispersal provides opportunities for plants to colonise new areas, which eventually creates new habitats and food for a range of different animals.
Elephant dung is an important – and plentiful – source of food for a host of different types of dung beetles. After animals drop off a dung pat, dung beetles can be seen streaming towards it, hoping to grab their share of the nutritious solids and fluids it contains. But elephant dung can serve up so many more portions for dung beetles to dine on. Besides feeding on dung, dung beetles also bury the dung below the ground where their larvae can feed and grow. By doing this, dung beetles loosen tightly-packed soil and get the nutritious elephant fertiliser to where it’s needed most – the layers of the soil where plants begin to grow. The submerged beetle larvae that fed off of the dung are a source of food for a number of different animals – like field mice and honey badgers. This means that by supporting the survival of beetle populations, elephant dung also supports the survival of a wide variety of life on land.
Nature cannot recover sufficiently in a shrinking habitat.
Elephants play an essential role in the conservation of wildlife in Africa and Asia and are the cornerstone of the ecosystem.
Meanwhile, climate change and human land use are degrading wild lands, breaking up essential elephant habitats and cutting off ancient migratory corridors. With the growth of commercial agriculture and infrastructure and industry development, the future of this species is at risk and so the fragile ecosystems that depend on it.
Moreover threats to this giant of the forest are numerous:
- African elephants are the most threatened by the poaching crisis. An estimated 35,000 are killed every year for their tusks; the natural growth rate in most elephant populations has yet to overtake the rate of killings.
- Many elephants are also the victims of refengeful attacks after they venture into human settlement and farm areas.
- In June 2020 a pregnant wild elephant fell victim to an act of human cruelty after a pineapple filled with powerful crackers offered by a man exploded in her mouth. She died of her injuries. This caused a lot of reactions on social media.
- Between March and June 2020, 330 elephants died in Botswana. Many of the animals had seemed to walk dizzily in circles near waterholes and then dropped suddenly dead. Scientists have confirmed that the mysterious death of these elephants ware caused by toxic blooms of cyanobacteria, a dangerous phenomenon that has been increasing worldwide in waterholes because of climate change and warmer water temperatures.
- Without elephants there will be major changes in nature, with far-reaching negative knock-on effects on the numerous plant and animal species that depend on them.
- As natural habitats disappear and larger animals get wiped out, animals like rats, bats, and insects survive as they’re able to live alongside human beings. Moreover the devastation of the tropical rainforests, is mostly driven by local farmers, who rely on the forest economically and their slash and burn techniques increase human exposure to this once-virgin territory and its wild animals. Insects and rats will leave the forest and come to the villages.
- New viruses are on the rise as those insects, rats and bats are suspected of being the vectors that can carry new diseases to humans: zoonotic diseases
The United Nations has warned that if the current deforestation and population growth trends continue, the country’s rainforest may have completely disappeared by the end of the century. As that happens, animals and the viruses they carry will collide with people in new and often disastrous ways.
Stop deforestation by funding
A multidisciplinary group of scientists based across the US, China, Kenya and Brazil has calculated that a global investment of $30 billion a year into projects to protect rainforests, halt the wildlife trade and farming would be enough to offset the cost of preventing future pandemics. A similar reforestation program in Brazil led to a 70% decline in deforestation between 2005 and 2012, the scientists said.
Support local institutions so that viruses can be detected in an early stage
Pathogens have to be detected in an early stage, at the frontline next to the rain forests where new viruses emerge. In Congo the “Institut National pour la Recherche Biomedicale” INRB, a medical research institute in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is supported by Japan, the US, the World Health Organization, the EU and other international donors including NGOs, foundations and academic institutions.
It takes time for a virus to spread over the world, so if this virus is detected early there will be opportunity for Europe [and the rest of the world] to develop new strategies to fight these new pathogens.
Wild Life Trade should be banned
Experts say the rising number of emerging viruses is not only the result of ecological destruction but also of wildlife trade.
“Bushmeat” is the traditional source of protein for people living in the rainforests, but it is now traded far from where it’s sourced and exported globally. Scientists believe zoonotic illnesses like Ebola and Covid-19 make the leap when wild animals are butchered.
The live animals in the so-called “wet” market pose an even bigger threat.
Scientists have previously linked these kinds of wet markets to zoonotic diseases. The H5N1 influenza virus, known as the avian flu, and SARS both emerged from them. The exact origin of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 has not been confirmed. But the greatest suspicion for its source has fallen on “wet” markets where live animals are sold and butchered for meat.
Once a new virus begins circulating among humans, the consequences of a brief encounter at the edge of a forest or at a wet market could be devastating. Covid-19 has shown that. Ebola has proved it.
Stop illegal poaching and trophy hunting
Governments around the world must take more decisive action and enforce stricter environmental laws that stop illegal logging, poaching and trophy hunting, fight corruption, reduce pollution and help farmers grow more plant food on less land.
Stopping the massive destruction of nature by humans is the only solution to prevent the extinction of all animal and plant species in the long term and to preserve the biodiversity on earth.
Biodiversity is essential for our survival and well-being. Conserving biodiversity should become a priority in our everyday lives. Every action, even local ones count because it is the sum of it that will make the difference.
To support local biodiversity actions, Izindlovu Fund is partner in the Belgian project “Samen voor biodiversiteit”