How Threatened Elephants Effectively Fight Climate Change

The idea might sound quite strange: Elephants fighting climate change? How do these highly intelligent largest existing land animals affect the climate? And if they do, then how much impact can they really have?

According to the New York Times, elephants can have a profound impact on their environment and the world. It puts into perspective just how important all living creatures are.

“Forest elephants — the smaller, endangered relatives of African savanna elephants — promote the growth of large trees that excel at storing carbon, according to research published in the journal Nature Geoscience. 

Should forest elephants disappear, scientists estimated, Central Africa’s rain forest will lose about three billion tons of carbon — the equivalent of France’s total CO2 emissions for 27 years,” wroteRachel Nuwer.

How do elephants promote large tree growth?

According to the research, the elephant’s activities allow a few large trees to proliferate rather than a thicket of smaller undergrowth. These big hardwoods store much more carbon than smaller trees can.

For people that always seem to want to think in terms of money, this translates to a highly valuable service.

According to the Times:

“Put another way, elephants provide a carbon storage service valued at $43 billion.”

Fewer larger trees allow better light penetration as well as water availability for remaining plants. The elephants are essentially acting like gardeners as they go about their routines, foraging for tons of vegetation. As they move about, they recycle nutrients and disperse seeds.

The research found:

“We find that the reduction of forest stem density due to the presence of elephants leads to changes in the competition for light, water, and space among trees. These changes favor the emergence of fewer and larger trees with higher wood density. Such a shift in African’s rainforest structure and species composition increases the long-term equilibrium of aboveground biomass.”

The activities of the forest elephants could have shaped Africa’s rainforests over thousands of years. Today the rainforests they help create are second in size only to the Amazon’s. Although it’s not well-known, Africa’s rain forests are more dense in vegetation than in South America. Why? The large herbivores remain there today, while the Amazon lost the animals that once occupied the same niche as elephants.

“The Amazon lost its large herbivores 12,000 years ago, among them ground sloths that weighed over three tons, elephant-like creatures called gomphotheres, and armadillo-like glyptodonts that were the size of small cars.”


Humans hunting Glyptodon, by Heinrich Harder via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


Now as we’re all well-aware by now, elephants are currently under threat thanks to humans. Poaching and human encroachment thanks to ever-growing populations, is eradicating the forest elephant population, just as scientists are finding how vital they are for ecosystems. Putting an end to poaching and saving the environment can have a profound effect, not only on the African forest but on the interconnected world we share.

Of course, it’s not just elephants that create a healthy, diverse ecosystem. We must cherish all of nature and protect it today.


See more about the forest elephants in Africa below from The New Yorker:

Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube

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Matthew Silvan

Progressive liberal from the American south. Working to educate and inform on issues like preserving the environment, equality for minorities and women, and improving the quality of life for mankind and our ecosystem. Following the facts in the face of a movement to follow only the money.

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