Elephants Are Helping Save the Planet, Scientists Say

Forest Elephants’ Dining Habits Are Climate-Friendly

St. Louis, Missouri, UNITED STATES

St. Louis, Dec. 10, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- As humans debate climate change and study ways to combat global warming, it turns out that elephants have been doing their part to help the planet all along.

One of the last remaining megaherbivores, forest elephants shape their environment by serving as seed dispersers and forest bulldozers as they eat over a hundred species of fruit, trample bushes, knock over trees and create trails and clearings.

In a recent study, scientists found that African forest elephants act as gardeners, pruning the forest by selectively eating nutritious trees and plants in a way that allows other, less nutritious vegetation that stores higher quantities of carbon from greenhouse gas emissions to thrive.

As the elephants thin the forest, they increase the number of slow-growing trees compared to fast growing species which enables the forest to store more carbon.

Unfortunately, these “ecosystem engineers” are rapidly facing extinction. The loss of elephants will seriously reduce the ability of the forest to store carbon and so less carbon dioxide will be kept out of the atmosphere. Furthermore, the loss of forest elephants will cascade through the ecosystem reducing species richness of trees and the myriad species that depend on them.

These findings suggest far-ranging ecological consequences of past and present extinctions.

“Elephants are a flagship species, and the ship is sinking,” said Stephen Blake, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Saint Louis University, who spent 17 years in central Africa where he did applied research and conservation work with elephants.

Blake, who teaches biology to Saint Louis University students when he’s not conducting field research, is adamant that we must take elephant conservation seriously, for their sake and ours. 

“People love elephants – we spend millions every year on cuddly toys, they are zoo favourites and who didn’t cry during Dumbo? and yet we’re pushing them closer to extinction every day. On one hand we admire them and feel empathy and are horrified when they are murdered yet on the other hand we’re not prepared to do anything serious about it. The consequences may be severe for us all. We need to change our ways."


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