The Important Role Elephants Play

In honour of World Environment Day, we'd like to share a little about the role that elephants play in the environment.

The Elephant’s Biggest Threat

Elephants in Africa face two VERY SERIOUS THREATs - Loss of habitat due to human (and sometimes even elephant ) over population and poverty. In the 1940’s there were 3 million elephants and roughly 200 million people in Africa, 1980 1 million elephants and 500 million people and by 2014 there were 400 000 elephants but now over 1 Billion people! So in the last 75 years the human population has increased 450% (Quadrupled) while the elephant population has decreased by 86%. Scary statistics! If this trend continues there will be no wild elephants by 2025. This said, elephants can be their (and other animals) worst enemy if they overpopulate in their restricted wildlife reserves, currently of all the land in Africa only 6% is available to wildlife because it is poor for any other commercial activities such as agriculture, mining or human habituation.  

Second to this is illegal Poaching, this currently is not such a big issue in Southern African States (of elephants, not other species) but a very big concern for many countries North of Zambia, but the pressure will come to South Africa and already 19 elephants have been poached in the iconic Kruger National Park in the last few years. This is mostly due to poverty and greed, the average rural African earns US$ 2 per day and with 1 in 3 people unemployed in South Africa alone, pressure is high to support oneself and ones family by any means - even if it’s poaching (for ivory or meat) or robbery. Poaching Syndicates earn good money for ivory in eastern countries, much like the drug Cartels earn good money from illegal drugs in Western Countries and use whatever means available to supply the demand. This puts huge pressure on our wildlife and policing.

Elephant's Roles in Nature

One of the elephants most important roles in an ecosystem is as a “horticulturist”, in that elephants literally are landscapers and gardeners. Elephants are Mega-herbivores and known as “Transformer” species in that they can literally transform landscapes.

They are also known as both an “inhibitor’ and “facilitator” species. Facilitation is where their role is to pull down trees and break up thorny bushes thereby opening up the bushy areas to create grasslands allowing some species of animals to flourish like Buffalo, Zebra, Wildebeest and White rhino. This is due to their voracious appetites, because they eat 5% of their body weight a day equating to 300kg of trees and grass a day per elephant, remember in Southern Africa this is usually restricted to reserves which were deemed not suitable for human agriculture!

However elephants are also an “Inhibitor” species, because the trees and bushes which make up habitat and browse for some species such as the Black Rhino and the Chobe Bushbuck, are depleted and therefore the bushbuck decline in numbers due to habitat loss.

Their digestion system is poor and they only digest 40% of what they eat thus elephant droppings act as a fertilizer, which is import to improve the soil condition and grow new trees. The elephant’s dropping serves a purpose for animals such as Dung beetles to lay their larvae in (and fertilize soils), baboons and birds, who pick through the droppings for seeds and nuts. The nutrient-rich manure from the droppings replaces nutrients to depleted soils to help farmers improve their crops. African Elephants that live in the forests are known as the “gardeners”.  Their droppings act as a form of seed dispersal which creates a high plant diversity.