Elephants are among the most intelligent creatures on the planet. These majestic creatures contain complex consciousness and are capable of strong emotions. Across Africa, elephants have inspired respect from the people that share the land with them, giving them a strong cultural significance. As icons of the African continent, elephants are tourism magnets, attracting funding to help protect wilderness areas. They are also a vital species that plays an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of the ecosystems they live in.
Why something needs to be done
There are only around 415,000 remaining wild African Elephants. In Asia, the number is much lower with around 50,000 elephants remaining. Elephant numbers are on the decline due to threats such as poaching for ivory, conflict with humans, and habitat loss and degradation.
Habitats are being damaged and destroyed by human expansion for farming, villages, and infrastructure. This has increased conflict between humans and elephants as they travel through farmland, trampling crops, and damaging houses in search of water, food, and new land to roam.
Elephants are a charismatic species at the forefront of many conservation campaigns, but why are they so important? Elephants are known as an essential species – they have a large effect on their environment and they impact the biodiversity surrounding them.
The Important Role Elephants Play
1) Seed Dispersing Gardeners
Elephants eat seeds, transport them around in their guts and then ‘plant’ them in their dung. Wherever they roam, elephants leave fertilizer that is full of seeds from the many plants they eat. Their dung is rich in nutrients, making it the perfect fertilizer to allow seeds to germinate and grow. When this dung is deposited, the seeds are sown and grow into new grass, bushes, and trees, boosting the health of the savannah ecosystem.
Studies have suggested that some elephants can disperse seeds as far as 35.4 miles (57km). Elephant seed dispersal provides opportunities for plants to colonize new areas, providing new habitats for a range of animals.
The elephant’s droppings also serve a purpose for animals such as baboons and birds, who pick through the droppings for seeds and nuts. The nutrient-rich manure replaces nutrients to depleted soils to help farmers improve their crops. African Elephants that live in the forests are known as the “gardeners”.
2) Food Providers
As elephants roam the countryside, they leave their droppings everywhere they’ve been. Elephant dung alone is an important food resource for the community’s species. The dung is collected by dung beetles, who store it as a food resource for their larvae. This, in turn, also provides a food resource for honey badgers because they live off of dung beetle larvae. Elephants also use their trunks to pull down branches, providing fruit and leaves as a food resource to the animals on the lower levels.
When forest elephants eat, they create gaps in the vegetation. These gaps allow new plants to grow and create pathways for smaller animals to travel through the forest. Elephants play a huge role in the ways in which trees disperse their seeds; some species rely entirely upon elephants for seed dispersal.
3) Water Providers / Natures Construction workers
Dry weather makes life difficult for animals of all sizes, but for huge animals such as elephants, a lack of water can seem to be an overwhelming problem. Despite the harsh living conditions created by drought, nature has equipped elephants with survival tools to help them find water. Elephants may use one or more methods to find water, depending on the conditions they find themselves in.
During the dry seasons, elephants use their giant ivory tusks to dig wells into the ground to access water that is below the surface. They use their feet, trunks, and tusks to create holes in the ground in order to reach the water. This not only allows the elephants to survive when a drought strikes, but also provides water for other animals that share harsh habitats.
The African elephant’s other role is to pull down trees and break up thorny bushes. As a result, they create grasslands and salt licks in order to make other animals’ lives easier to survive in their environment.
4) Habitat Modifiers
In forests, elephants create clearings by trampling unpleasant shrubbery. This encourages alternative plant growth, providing a different habitat within the trees. The clearings allow more light to reach the forest floor giving lower lying plants less competition and a chance to receive sunlight to grow. This then promotes biodiversity, providing new roles for organisms to occupy.
Help Us Help Them
Elephants are complex, intelligent and magnificent creatures that play an important role within our ecosystem as they transform one habitat into another. It is clear that elephants are a critical species within the ecosystems and communities. Losing elephants would not mean just losing an animal embedded in our history, but it would create a trophic cascade resulting in the loss of many species and habitats.
Do your part to save the Elephants by joining our crusade. We donate 10% of the profits from our store to elephant conservation efforts in Africa. Please subscribe to become a member of the Herd so that you can get newsletter updates and discounts. Don’t forget to give us a shout out on social media #elefootprints.