Can elephants save the planet?

Newswise — In findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers and colleagues at the University of Saint Louis report that elephants play a key role in creating forests that store more atmospheric carbon and in maintaining forest biodiversity in Africa. If the already critically endangered elephants were to disappear, the Central and West African rainforest, the second largest rainforest on earth, would gradually lose between six and nine percent of its ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, amplifying the global warming.

“Elephants have been hunted by humans for millennia,” Blake said. “As a result, Africa’s forest elephants are critically endangered. The argument that everyone loves elephants has not garnered enough support to stop the slaughter. Shifting the argument in favor of conservation of elephants towards the role that forest elephants play in maintaining forest biodiversity, that losing elephants would mean losing forest biodiversity, hasn’t worked either, as the numbers continue to drop We can now add the strong conclusion that if we lose forest elephants, we will be doing climate change mitigation a global disservice.The importance of forest elephants for climate change mitigation must be taken seriously by policy makers in order to generate the necessary support for elephant conservation The role of forest elephants in our global environment is too important out to be ignored.

Elephants play multiple roles in protecting the global environment. In the forest, some trees produce light wood (low carbon density trees) while others produce heavy wood (high carbon density trees). Low-carbon trees grow rapidly, towering above other plants and trees to reach sunlight. Meanwhile, high-carbon trees grow slowly, need less sunlight, and can grow in shade. Elephants and other megaherbivores affect the abundance of these trees by feeding more on low-carbon-density trees, which are more palatable and more nutritious than high-carbon-density species. This “thins” the forest, much like a forester would do to promote the growth of his favorite species. This thinning reduces competition between trees and provides more light, space and nutrients to the soil to help high-carbon trees thrive.

“Elephants eat a lot of leaves from a lot of trees, and they do a lot of damage when they eat,” Blake said. “They rip leaves from trees, tear off an entire branch or uproot a young tree while eating, and our data shows that most of this damage occurs on trees with low carbon density. If there are a lot of high carbon density trees, that’s one less competitor, knocked out by the elephants.

Elephants are also excellent seed dispersers of high carbon density trees. These trees often produce large, nutritious fruits that elephants eat. These seeds pass through the elephants gut undamaged and when released through the droppings they are ready to sprout and grow into some of the tallest trees in the forest.

“Elephants are the gardeners of the forest,” Blake said. “They plant the forest with high carbon density trees and they get rid of the ‘weeds’, which are the low carbon density trees. They do a tremendous job to maintain the diversity of the forest.

Due to these preferences, elephants are directly linked to the influence of carbon levels in the atmosphere. High-carbon-density trees store more carbon from the atmosphere in their wood than low-carbon-density trees, helping to fight global warming.

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

Armed with this knowledge, Berzaghi is now looking to the future to determine how other rainforest animals affect its biodiversity and whether they have the same impact as elephants.

“The implications of our study extend beyond forest elephants in Africa,” Berzaghi said. “While we show that the leaves of low-carbon trees are less palatable to herbivores, these results imply that other large herbivores, such as primates or the Asian elephant, could also contribute. to the growth of high carbon density trees in other tropical forests.Our goal is to expand on this by studying these other species and regions.

Armed with this vital information, the case for the conservation of forest elephants in the Congo Basin and West Africa has never been stronger. Elephant populations have been wiped out from many areas of the forest, and in many areas they are functionally extinct, meaning their populations are so low that they have no significant impact on the ecology of the forest. Blake calls for more protection for forest elephants.

“Illegal elephant killing and illegal trade remain active,” Blake said. “Ten million elephants once roamed Africa, and now there are fewer than 500,000, with most populations living in isolated pockets. These elephants range from endangered to endangered. Critically endangered, with numbers dropping by more than 80% in the last 30 years Elephants are protected under national and international law, yet poaching continues These illegal killings must stop to prevent elephant extinction forest. Now we have a choice. As a global society, we can continue to hunt these highly social and intelligent animals and see them disappear, or we can find ways to end this illegal activity. Save the elephants and help save the planet, it really is that simple.

Other researchers in this study include François Bretagnolle and Clémentine Durand-Bessart of the University of Burgundy, France.

About Saint Louis University

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions in the country. Rooted in Jesuit values ​​and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers more than 13,500 students a rigorous and transformative whole-person education. At the heart of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-oriented mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better and fairer place.

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