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Elephant Gardeners

Just as Elephants need their forest, the forest needs them. Dr Blake, researcher with the Mac Planck Institute for Ornithology, describes the elephants as "mega-gardeners". The researcher and his colleagues spent several months camping in the dense forests tracking the elephants. He has found that, during their lumbering treks, forest elephants can vacuum up hundreds of pieces of fruit from under a single tree. 

They then deposit the seeds they have eaten with a generous helping of fertiliser - in the guise of elephant dung - throughout the forest. Another side effect of their fruit-rich diet is that they probably defecate around 17 times per day. 

"Almost every pile of elephant dung contains viable seeds from up to 16 different plant species and thousands of individual seeds," says Dr Blake. "Tropical forests are so diverse that a seed that lands near its parent plant has a suite of seed predators and pathogens waiting to nab it," he explains. "So if you're a seed and you land under your parent, the probability of you surviving is almost zero." Forest elephants, however, can take seeds several kilometers from their parent plant. "It's like the parable from the bible - some seeds will land on stony ground, some on poor soil, but some will land on good soil... 

"With lots of elephants roaming the forests, at least some seeds are likely to land in the right place to grow," says Dr Blake.

And a myriad of other species depend on the structure of the forest that the elephants create. "Insects, mosses, lichens, invertebrates, other vertebrates; a whole gamut of animal, plant and fungal species are specific to certain trees or plants," explains Dr Blake. 

"If we lose elephants, we're going to lose those trees; forest biodiversity as a whole is going to diminish." 

A recent study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that there is a stark correlation between lower elephant populations and less trees. Elephants are regarded as the architects of their environments for their ability to influence the local vegetation. In fact is has been said that after humans, elephants have the largest ability to influence their natural environments.

The findings of the Proceedings study show that the trees that are popularly found in traditional elephant habitats have become reliant on these animals for seed dispersal. According to researcher, Trevor Caughlin, trees produce millions of seeds and only one of them needs to successfully make it into the ground for a new sapling to grow. But, researchers found that the method of dispersal played a great role not only in the chances that this would occur, but also the future health of the tree. Looking at tree data from an area in Thailand where elephant populations used to number in the 100,000s, and have now been reduced down to around 2,000, it became apparent that trees planted via elephant-mediated dispersal have a much better shot at survival.

What is most troubling about the researcher’s findings is that in areas where elephants are becoming extinct, so are local species of trees. So, in a nutshell … if the elephants are going extinct, they’re going to take the trees with them.

Trees play a vital role in preventing soil erosion. In areas that are prone to either flooding or drought, trees help to lock the soil in place, basically holding the entire habitat in place. When soil runs into rivers it can cause them to dry up – meaning the loss of major water supplies and also homes and croplands.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations even goes as far as to assert that soil erosion in and of itself can destroy an entire civilization. The survival of the elephant is precarious, but the survival of the one billion people who live in regions that are already threatened by water scarcity and degrading environmental conditions from soil erosion will also be put at high risk.

A healthy elephant population means a healthy environment which in turn benefits people. The ivory trade and tourism industry may be highly profitable endeavors, but it is clear that what they cost to the environment hardly makes them worth the pay off.

The resilience of an ecosystem relies on the delicate balance of all species. By removing the elephant from the equation for our personal gains, we are ultimately tipping the balance away from our own favor. Now that the direct correlation between the elephant and forests has been drawn, conservationists hope to spread the message that “guns kill trees too.”

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