Elephant diet choices are helping fight climate change

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An African elephant.
An African elephant.
Alfonso Nqunjana
  • Elephants' preference for small tasty leaves and large sweet fruits is helping mitigate global warming.
  • By feeding off small, leafy trees, larger trees are left with more space to grow and can absorb carbon dioxide.
  • Research shows that forests with elephants hold more carbon than those without.
  • For climate change news and analysis, go to News24 Climate Future.

Elephants' preference for tasty leaves and large sweet fruits is helping mitigate global warming, according to new research that shows the importance to protect the mega-herbivores from extinction.

Asian and African elephants like to eat from small, leafy trees, leaving larger trees more space to grow. The latter absorb and store more planet-warming carbon dioxide and, as a result, forests with elephants hold more carbon than forests without them, according to a study published at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Ecology on Monday.

The findings draw a direct link between the conservation of the giant herbivores and forests' capacity to store carbon. They come just weeks after a UN biodiversity summit in which countries agreed a landmark deal to ensure protection of a third of the Earth's land and oceans by 2030. The accord is expected to encourage the finance industry to assign a price to natural resources that had previously been treated as cost-free.

READ | Rapid development is main threat to big carnivores - study

The African forest elephant is listed as "critically endangered," while the African savanna elephant is classified as "endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organisation made up of governments and civil society organisations that studies and ranks the status of different species.

About 80% of the population of African forest elephants has disappeared in less than a century, a trend that's continuing and likely irreversible, according to the IUCN. The shrinking of their natural habitat as human population expands and poaching are among the main causes of the decline.

Yet the animals also contribute to biodiversity and carbon capture through the spread of seeds embed in their dung, researchers found. Forest elephants travel great distances and have a daily food intake of between 100 and 200 kilograms of over 350 species. As a result, they move more seeds of more species than any other animal.

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Researchers combined a previously unpublished dataset with public data and came up with a model that analysed nearly 200 000 records of feedings covering close to 800 plant species. Elephant feeding data was collected in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo, while forest inventories were taken near the Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a scenario without elephants, smaller, more leafy trees would thrive, while larger trees wouldn't have as much room to grow and wouldn't spread as fast.

Overall, that would result in a smaller capacity by forests to capture and store carbon. The simulation ran by researchers showed that, without elephants, capacity to store carbon would be diminished by 5.8% and 9.2% for forests studied in the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, respectively.


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