Elephants and Climate Change

W​e can’t remember the first time we saw an elephant. It wasn’t in Africa or India. We’ve never been to either place. It may have been the little zoo at Wasaga Beach. It may have been at the circus at the Canadian National Exhibition. It may have been at a game park called African Lion Safari, it may have been at the Toronto zoo. We haven’t managed to pin that down in our memory. That’s how pervasive elephants are in western culture.

Anyway, they are fascinating creatures. As ungainly as the are, they have a kind of stateliness. As mammals, they behave much as we do, living in groups and caring for their young as a community. They are also highly intelligent. One circus performer used an elephant to step on a teeter board to launch her into the air. The elephant displayed a genuine conscientiousness about it. If she didn’t think like her gait as she trotted toward the board, she would go back and start again without being prompted.

This all goes to show that we have an affinity to the largest land animal on earth. Our cousins live near St. Thomas, where a memorial stands to the most famous elephant, and perhaps the most famous animal, in the world, Jumbo. Jumbo is part of our language now. It has become a synonym for “large”.

We have all seen elephants in captivity, but we think today people have a greater affinity for seeing elephants in the wild. Something about them brings out that awe we feel for nature and our earth. Every time we research a story for the ecology category, we are reminded yet again of the web of life.

Like all species, elephants are interrelated with all other species in their environment. They play a vital role in the management of African forests. Elephants are examples of megaherbivores. In spite of their size, they eat nothing but plants. They eat at least 100 kinds of fruit. Their waste spreads the seeds throughout the forest. They also shape the forest by bulldozing their way around and making trails that other species take advantage of.

They prefer to eat fast growing trees. This is important, because when elephants consume the fast growing trees in the forest, the slower growing, higher density trees get a chance to thrive. With everyone concerned about the climate crisis, scientists have discovered that these higher density trees capture and store more carbon. As we often see in nature, without even knowing it, elephants are maintaining the natural balance of life. If they were smarter, they’d be charging for this service. Scientists estimate that they are saving us humans $43 billion in carbon sequestration costs.

Readers can probably guess where this is headed. We’ve touched on the mass extinction often enough to give away the plot of this story. Yes, like most species, forest elephants are in serious decline. Their population is collapsing. It has fallen by 60% since 2002. They occupy less than a quarter of the range they used to inhabit. It’s partly due to their low birth rate. Unlike other kinds of elephants, their females can’t give birth until they are about 20 years old. They also have calves every five or six years, which is much less often than other elephant species.

It’s not that this birth rate that has changed, though. They’ve always lived like that. But it makes other problems worse for them. Readers can also probably guess who the real culprit is. Yes, as usual, this problem is caused by humans. Humans are encroaching on the forest habitat. They are working to exploit the timber and clear land for agriculture.

What’s worse, these elephants are falling prey to poaching. When a forest elephant dies, about a third of the time they have been killed by a poacher. Commercial demand for ivory still drives poaching. Forest elephant tusks are prized because, compared with other tusks, they are harder and straighter. A market also exists for bush meat, although often poachers take the ivory tusks and waste the carcass.

Even if all poaching ended tomorrow, it would take decades for this population to recover, not that it matters. Nothing suggests that governments plan to do anything to curb poaching in the Congo basin. Nor is there any sign of any serious intention to end the demand for ivory in Asian countries. Merchants still sell it on the black market there for use in art and as quack medicine.

This story brings four ecological themes together. First, all living species are interrelated. Forest elephants don’t exist in isolation. They are part of the biodiversity that makes up the African forest ecosystem. They play an irreplaceable role in it.

Secondly, their way of life stabilizes the climate. Without forest elephants, the large dense trees that sequester so much carbon couldn’t grow. Thirdly, we cannot conserve species without conserving habitat. Agriculture and forestry are wiping out this invaluable species. The fourth point is that the scourge of poaching and big game hunting adds insult to injury for these majestic creatures.

You can do something to help, though. You can donate to the African Forest Elephant Foundation. They work to secure the survival of African forest elephants and the Central African forest habitat. You can help to raise awareness of forest elephant conservation and offer a better future to these wonderful animals.
There is always more to learn if we dare to know.
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