Did you know the effects of elephants' activities ripple far beyond the gentle giants themselves? In fact, an entire ecosystem depends on these social, intelligent animals — which is why if elephants disappear, the world will be less inhabitable for all species, including human.
Elephants are what scientists call a "keystone species;" that is, their influence on the ecosystem is especially great. The habits of the African forest elephant, in particular — a distinct species that differs significantly from its counterpart, the savanna elephant — has an impact as enormous as the endangered pachyderm itself.
A recent report published in Conservation Biology by John R. Poulsen of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and his colleagues explains that, as fruit-eating animals, elephants are essential for helping a variety of trees flourish. With elephants consuming certain fruits and consequently, pooping out the seeds, a wide variety of plants are able to grow.
Elephants also trample stems and roots. And while that may sound like a bad thing for a forest, it actually helps reduce plant density, allowing larger trees to rise up. Should elephants go extinct, the fundamental changes in forest structure would alter the species composition of up to 96 percent of Central African forests, according to the report's authors.
The effects would extend far beyond Africa, as the tall forest trees absorb carbon dioxide, helping keep global warming at bay. Losing these trees could contribute to an already out-of-control climate crisis, causing very real repercussions to all life on Earth.
Bans help, but there's more work to be done
This scenario could soon be more than hypothetical. More than 60 percent of Africa's forest elephants have been poached in the past decade, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. In fact, the species now inhabits a mere one-fourth of their historic range.
Despite international efforts to halt the commercial ivory trade responsible for killing an astonishing 100 elephants per day, the demand for elephant tusks remains. The good news is that leading countries like the U.S., the U.K., and most recently, China, have banned new ivory — though loopholes allowing supposed "antique" ivory still leaves the door open for poachers to continue their trade. Similarly, the Trump administration has lifted the existing ban on importing elephant trophies into the United States, creating another potential loophole for poachers to exploit.
Yet despite the setbacks, awareness of these incredible animals' plight is only growing. As activists continue to speak out, lawmakers across the globe are listening. With hope, we will save this iconic species, and the health of African forests along with it.
Nina Jackel is founder and president of Lady Freethinker, a nonprofit organization dedicated to publishing news, petitions and grassroots actions to create a more compassionate world for all species. LFT works to stop animal cruelty in the dog meat trade, dogfighting industry, factory farming and more.