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Jenna Govier
Four reasons why the environment needs elephants

Elephants contribute to the health of the environment in many different ways, and elephant conservation efforts are important in ensuring that they’re always around to do what they do best – be elephants!

But there are many studies showing that we need to up our game when it comes to elephant conservation. For instance, the Great Elephant Census – the world’s largest wildlife survey – confirmed a 30% decrease in the global African elephant population in the last few decades.

And it’s not only African elephants that are facing challenges. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Asian elephant populations have decreased by at least 50% since the early 1900s. 

What’s being done about the declining elephant population?

Elephant numbers are in decline because these animals are poached for their ivory, come into conflict with humans and are experiencing ongoing habitat loss and degradation.

To slow the decline of the elephant population many conservation organisations have made these tusked creatures the focus of their conservation efforts – like the projects set up by the Save the Elephants organisation and the WWF African Elephant Programme.

But there’s lots more to be done, and elephant conservation is more important now than it has ever been before. 

Why? Well, African and Asian elephants are keystone species, meaning that the environments that they live in would be greatly affected if they weren’t around. At the same time, around 8% of the elephant population is lost each year, so the prospect of these keystone species becoming extinct isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. 

Take a look at just four ways that elephants have a huge positive impact on the environments they live in, and how they contribute to wildlife conservation just by doing what elephants do best. 

1) Elephants are seed transporters

Spot elephants when you volunteer in africa with animals

 

The African elephant is the largest herbivore in the world, and even though the Asian elephant is smaller in stature, it’s still considered one of the herbivorous heavyweights of the animal kingdom. So it’s no surprise that these guys eat a good amount of plant material every day. 

After munching on vegetation – that also consists of seeds – elephants transport plant material around in their guts, and then drop them off in mounds of dung. In this way, plant material can be dropped off thousands of metres away from where the plants were initially eaten. In fact, some studies have suggested that elephants can disperse seeds over distances of more than 50 kilometres. 

Elephant dung is the perfect fertiliser since it’s rich in nutrients that allow seeds to germinate and grow. And elephant seed dispersal provides opportunities for plants to colonise new areas, which eventually creates new habitats and food for a range of different animals.

2) They provide plenty of food

A dung beetle using elephant dung as an important source of food

Original photo: “Dung Beetle / Addo Elephant Park / South Africa” by Michael Mayer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Elephant dung is an important – and plentiful – source of food for a host of different types of dung beetles. After animals drop off a dung pat, dung beetles can be seen streaming towards it, hoping to grab their share of the nutritious solids and fluids it contains. 

But elephant dung can serve up so many more portions for dung beetles to dine on. Besides feeding on dung, dung beetles also bury the dung below the ground where their larvae can feed and grow. By doing this, dung beetles loosen tightly-packed soil and get the nutritious elephant fertiliser to where it’s needed most – the layers of the soil where plants begin to grow. 

So elephants are an important part of keeping ecosystems fertile and maintaining plant populations. 

But there’s more. The submerged beetle larvae that fed off of the dung are a source of food for a number of different animals – like field mice and honey badgers.  

This means that by supporting the survival of beetle populations, elephant dung also supports the survival of a wide variety of life on land. 

Elephants also bring down branches that may have been too high up for smaller animals to reach. This gives these animals access to more food. 

So these floppy-eared food-providers support the survival of other creatures and contribute to species biodiversity within ecosystems. 

3) They can dig watering holes

Elephants digging in the watering hole

Original photo: Elephant Bath by Keith Roper is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Elephants dig wells to access water underground. They use their feet, trunks and tusks to create holes deep enough to tap into underground water sources. These elephant-made watering holes are then available for other animals to drink from.

4) Elephants modify their environments

Elephants walking through grass

 

Because of their size, there’s not much that can get in an elephant’s way. 

In forests, elephants create clearings by trampling vegetation. These clearings allow more light to reach the forest floor, giving lower-lying plants a better chance to grow. 

And, because different types of animals rely on different types of plants, this can promote species biodiversity, providing new niches for organisms to inhabit.

Elephants also modify savannah habitats by pulling down trees and breaking up thorny bushes. This assists in keeping the savannah an open plain, interspersed with trees and bushes – instead of overrun by them – and supports the type of species that like to live in the savannah biome. 

What you can do to get involved in elephant conservation

A mahout (elephant carer) standing in a field and observing an elephant from a distance.

A Thai elephant carer (mahout) observing an elephant from a distance.

It’s clear how the presence of elephants in an ecosystem benefits fauna and flora alike. So wildlife conservation programs that focus on elephant conservation aren’t only looking out for the elephants, but for all the plants and animals that depend on them too. 

Find out more about GVI’s international elephant conservation programs in Africa and Asia and get involved in making a positive impact in wildlife conservation

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