The extinction of critically endangered elephants could exacerbate global warming, scientists have warned.
As if the prospect of the planet’s largest land mammal disappearing forever wasn’t bad enough, losing them could have devastating effects on Earth’s second-largest rainforest.
This elephant population in Congo The basin, which straddles several countries in central and west Africa, has seen dramatic declines over the past decade — a 60 percent decline to an estimated 40,000 animals, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Poaching is a major reason for their decline, with thousands killed each year for their tusks.
If these animals disappeared entirely, the Congo’s rainforest — second only to Brazil’s Amazon – will lose up to 9% of its ability to capture atmospheric carbon.
“If we lose forest elephants, we’re doing a disservice to global climate change mitigation,” said Stephen Black, an assistant professor of biology at Saint Louis University.
“Policymakers must take seriously the importance of forest elephants to climate change mitigation to generate the support needed for elephant conservation.
“The role of forest elephants in our global environment is too important to ignore.”
African elephants ‘endangered’
Protecting Congo Basin ‘very difficult’
The key role of elephants
Professor Black is the senior author of a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
His team’s research describes the importance of elephants to African rainforests, maintaining their valuable status as carbon sinks when they absorb more carbon dioxide than they emit.
When it comes to eating, elephants prefer low-carbon-intensive trees because they are more nutritious and can promote the growth of high-carbon-intensive trees.
Elephants’ foraging habits “thin” forests, which reduces competition among trees and provides more light, space and soil nutrients for high-carbon trees.
When elephants do feed on high-carbon trees, it’s usually the large fruit that grows from the tree — the seeds pass through the animal’s gut intact.
These are released into the elephant dung, ready to sprout and grow into some of the largest trees in the forest.
“Save the Elephants – Help Save the Planet”
Prof Black hailed them as the “gardeners of the forest” – and said the research was all the more reason for them to be better protected.
He added: “As a global community, we can continue to hunt these highly social and intelligent animals and watch them go extinct, or we can find ways to stop this illegal activity.
“Save the elephants, help save the planet, it’s that simple.”
The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that there are 415,000 elephants left across Africa and 40,000 to 50,000 in the wild in Asia.