The Importance of Elephants for our climate
Magical, beautiful Africa and the loss of its mighty savannas and ancient forests
Decline of Population
The biggest threat to all the beautiful species we encounter on our journey in Africa today is the decline in their population due to the loss of its mighty, endless savannas and ancient forests.
We have become accustomed to the fact that many of our most iconic animals are threatened with extinction due to climate change, habitat destruction, poaching and over-hunting.
But we rarely pause to reflect on what it was like when these magnificent animals lived in abundance on our planet.
Elephants are also losing their habitat and ancient migration routes due to the spread of human settlements into their habitat, agricultural development and the construction of infrastructure such as roads, canals and fences that fragment their habitat.
What would the world be like without elephants?
Without elephants, ecosystems would collapse. They are the engineers of biodiversity. This is evident in the semi-arid savannas, forests and scrublands of Africa, where there are still some elephant populations.
True Climate Heroes
They are true climate heroes, but global warming is also putting them in great distress. It is already becoming increasingly difficult to find water and food.
It is uncertain how long they will be able to adapt to the consequences of the climate crisis. It is high time to act. For the elephants themselves are invaluable in the fight against global warming.
Elephants are true ecosystem engineers. By distributing plant seeds and nutrients with their droppings, the grey giants not only ensure biodiversity.
Above all, forest elephants thin out dense woodland and make it possible for the remaining trees to develop better. This makes the African forest elephants valuable climate protectors.
On their paths through the dense rain forests of Africa, forest elephants pull bark off saplings, dig in the ground for roots, trample trees and graze them.
But what sounds like destruction here helps the forests and their ability to store CO2 enormously.
This is because the elephants mainly trample and eat smaller trees with a lower wood density, which compete with the larger trees for light, water and space and grow faster, but also die faster.
Thus, the feeding and migration behaviour of forest elephants promotes the survival of large, slow-growing trees with a correspondingly greater wood density, which store much more carbon in their trunks.
If the forest elephants die out, their forests lose a storage capacity of about three billion tons of carbon due to the missing gardeners.
This is equivalent to the emissions of over two billion cars in the course of a year.
When elephants uproot or demolish trees, micro habitats for seedlings and small animals like mongooses and invertebrates like butterflies are also created.
Elephants provide additional food for other organisms in the ecosystem.
Their dung is a very important and abundant food source for hosts such as dung beetles.
Besides providing food for the dung beetles, they bury the elephant dung for reproduction and use it as food and as a place to lay eggs (so that their young have food).
In this way, they loosen and nourish the soil and have many benefits for the health and functioning of natural ecosystems, such as dispersing seeds, reducing livestock parasites and promoting plant growth.
This simple example shows the importance of elephants and how the loss of one species can affect an entire ecosystem, as no other species would be able to fill its important ecological niche.
How many African elephants were there 100 years ago?
Millions of elephants once roamed Africa, regularly covering up to 20 kilometres a day.
Around 100 years ago, there were over 10 million elephants across Africa.
The number of African savanna elephants has declined by more than 60% in a 50-year period, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which assesses global wildlife extinction risk.
In 1930, up to 10 million wild elephants still lived in large parts of the African continent.
In 1979, there were still 1.3 million.
Between 1979 and 1989, more than 50 % of the elephant population was wiped out.
Ban of Ivory
This led to a ban on ivory in 1989; at that time there were only 600,000 elephants left on the entire continent.
Despite the ban on the international ivory trade, African elephants are still poached in large numbers. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their ivory tusks.
The ivory is often made into jewelry and ornaments – China is the largest market for such products.
The elephant population in Africa has declined by 111,000 elephants within a decade.
Today, there are only 415,000 elephants left in the whole of Africa.
An estimation of about 11.500 elephants exists today in the Kruger National Park.
While elephant poaching is trending downwards, with a significant decline in East Africa, it continues to bring the species perilously close to the brink of extinction.
Like blood diamonds from Sierra Leone or plundered minerals from Congo, ivory appears to be the latest conflict resource in Africa, hauled from remote combat zones and easily monetized, now fueling conflicts across the continent.
Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and the Janjaweed in Darfur, hunt elephants and sell ivory to buy weapons and fund their cruel wars.
Organized crime syndicates work with them to smuggle the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China.
Elephants are irreplaceable to a healthy ecosystem – by protecting them, we ensure that their habitats are preserved for other species.
A question of morality
Last but not least, it is also a question of morality. If we lose the elephants, we lose a very crucial part of our common, worldly soul.
And that ultimately applies to every species that we allow to disappear.
Sources: IUCN & SANPARKS