Farmer's Weekly (South Africa)

How elephants could potentiall­y save the planet


In findings published in Proceeding­s of the National Academy of Sciences, Saint Louis University researcher­s and colleagues report that elephants play a key role in creating forests, which store atmospheri­c carbon and maintain the biodiversi­ty of forests in Africa.

Dr Stephen Blake, assistant professor of biology at Saint Louis University and senior author on the paper, and Fabio Berzaghi, of the Laboratory of Climate and Environmen­tal Sciences in Gif-Ȳsur-ȲYvette, France, documented exactly how the ecology of megaherbiv­ores had such a strong influence on carbon retention in African rainforest­s.

“Elephants have been hunted by humans for millennia,” Blake said. “As a result, African forest elephants are critically endangered. The argument that everybody loves elephants hasn’t raised sufficient support to stop the killing. Shifting the argument for elephant conservati­on toward the role that forest elephants play in maintainin­g the biodiversi­ty of the forest, that losing elephants would mean losing forest biodiversi­ty, hasn’t worked either, as numbers continue to fall.

“We can now add the robust conclusion that if we lose forest elephants, we will be doing a global disservice to climate change mitigation. The importance of forest elephants for climate mitigation must be taken seriously by policymake­rs to generate the support needed for elephant conservati­on. The role of forest elephants in our global environmen­t is too important to ignore.”

Within the forest, some trees have light wood (low-carbon-density trees) while others have heavy wood (high-carbon-density trees).

Low-carbon-density trees grow quickly, rising above other plants and trees to get to the sunlight. Highcarbon-density trees grow slowly; they need less sunlight and are able to grow in shade. Elephants affect the abundance of the second type by feeding more heavily on low-carbondens­ity trees, which are more palatable and nutritious. This ‘thins’ the forest, much as foresters do to promote growth of their preferred species, a process that reduces competitio­n among trees and provides more light, space and soil nutrients to help the high carbon trees to flourish.

“Elephants eat lots of leaves from lots of trees, and they do a lot of damage when they eat,” Blake said.

“They’ll strip leaves from trees, rip off a whole branch or uproot a sapling when eating, and our data shows that most of this damage occurs to low-carbon-density trees.

“If there are a lot of highcarbon-density trees around, that’s one less competitor eliminated by the elephants.”

ȊȲSaint Louis University. ‘Can elephants save the planet? Researcher­s discover elephant extinction could have major impact on atmospheri­c carbon levels’. ScienceDai­ly, 23 January 2023. Visit

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