August 12, 2022
The Importance of Elephants
- as seen by -Sarah Markes
Savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) are the largest living land mammals. They are intelligent, have close family bonds, and complex social networks.
As with all other species, elephants play crucial roles within their ecosystem, with numerous species of plant and animal being affected by their presence – or absence. They are adaptable animals that can live in a wide variety of habitats from deserts to open savanna, wetlands, woodlands, and forests (although forest elephants are another species – Loxodonta cyclotis). Savanna elephants feed on a range of vegetation from grasses to trees and forage over large areas. This makes them excellent seed dispersers, depositing seed-laden dung as they travel. Their dung helps fertilize seedlings and enrich the soil with nutrients, thus supporting plant and tree renewal across the elephants’ range.
Savanna elephants are also sometimes known as ‘ecosystem engineers’. They break and fell trees as they feed and travel – opening up vegetation for new plant growth and grassland to thrive. This benefits grazing species such as buffalo, wildebeest, and zebra – which in turn provide food for carnivores including leopard, cheetah, and lion. In dry times, elephants dig for water in riverbeds, creating pools where other thirsty animals can drink.
Humans can also benefit from elephants. Well-managed safari tourism can bring significant income to communities, businesses, and national economies. Protecting elephants and their habitat supports ecosystem services like water catchment, pollination, and soil conservation which underpin agriculture and community wellbeing.
This does not mean living with elephants is easy. Human-elephant conflict is an increasing issue in many parts of Africa as farms and settlements spread across ancestral elephant habitat and migration routes. Crop raiding and property damage often ensue. However, many organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society are supporting community-based conservation measures to mitigate these conflicts, including using chili deterrent methods, alternative crops, wildlife corridor research and protection, land-use planning, and, of course, education.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today is World Elephant Day, a day dedicated to the preservation and protection of the world’s elephants.