How Losing Elephants Is Hurting Forests

As the loss of elephants continues at a catastrophic rate that threatens their future survival, researchers are drawing attention to how the loss not only hurts these iconic giants, but entire ecosystems they live in.

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers from the University of Florida looked at how the loss of elephants is causing the loss of tree species in Thailand. Elephants, and a number of other wild animals, disperse seeds they eat and pass in their waste as they travel but their dwindling numbers is having a negative impact on the forests they call home.

“This study fills a major gap in our understanding of how overhunting affects forest trees, particularly in tropical forests,” said Richard Corlett, director of the Center for Integrative Conservation at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens in Yunnan, China.

“We knew hunting was bad, but we were not sure why it was bad, and therefore could not predict the long-term impacts. Now we know it is really, really bad and will get worse. The message that ‘guns kill trees too’ should help put overhunting at the top of the conservation agenda, where it deserves to be,” he added.

As researchers noted in a statement, at the beginning of the 20th century, the number of elephants exceeded 100,000. Today, those numbers have plunged to a mere 2,000 as a result of poaching and overhunting.

After spending three years analyzing data on the growth and survival rate of trees that sprouted from a parent tree and comparing them with seeds that were transported and spread widely across the forest by animals, they found that the trees transported by animals were hardier and healthier.

Supplementing what they found with an additional 15 years worth of information on tree mortality from the Thai Royal Forest Department to create a long-term simulation, they also concluded that a loss of animal seed dispersers increases the probability of tree extinction by more than tenfold over a 100-year period.

“Previously, it’s been unclear what role seed dispersal plays in tree population dynamics,” said Trevor Caughlin, a postdoctoral student at the university and National Science Foundation fellow. “A tree makes millions of seeds during its lifetime, and only one of those seeds needs to survive to replace the parent tree. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like seed dispersal would be that important for tree population. What we found with this study is that seed dispersal has an impact over the whole life of a tree.”

A previous study conducted at the Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – where more than 98 percent of the forest elephants have been killed by poachers over the past few decades – came to a similar conclusion.  In that case, researchers found that over a dozen elephant-dependent trees were suffering as a result of their loss and highlighted how this harms not only tree species, but other animals who depend on them for food and also local communities who rely on them for medicinal purposes.

The thought of losing charismatic megafauna like elephants is tragic enough, but the toll their disappearance will have on ecosystems and other species who depend on them, including us, just adds to the reasons to support protecting them.

“The entire ecosystem is at risk,” said Caughlin. “My hope for this study is that it will provide a boost for those trying to curb overhunting and provide incentives to stop the wildlife trade.”

Photo credit: Thinkstock

124 comments

Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga3 months ago

thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Elizabeth Z.
Elizabeth Z2 years ago

The fact there is a market for ivory is very depressing :(

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Sandra I.
Sandra I2 years ago

so sad, so few left, and yet so many people still buy ivory, unaware that they are killing the last of these species.

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Mandy H.
Mandy H2 years ago

It's hardly surprising that a decline in elephants is affecting the ecosystem, every animal has a very important role in the environment. The loss of a single spceises can change the whole environment.

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Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla2 years ago

All creatures have their role on this planet, from the smallest to the biggest one. Without them the balance on ecosystems is lost. On the other hand.... If we disappear nothing bad happens....

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M. M.
M. M2 years ago

:-(

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donnaa d.
donnaa D2 years ago

ty

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M.N. J.
M.N. J2 years ago

No food without the bees; no trees without the elephants. We're doing a great job.

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Angev GERIDONI
Angev GERIDONI2 years ago

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Angev

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