By Ngala Killian Chimtom
YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon (IDN) — While African forest elephants have traditionally been thought of as playing a destructive, negative role in forests, the big munchers are now seen as critical to saving a climate in peril.
Scientists now suggest that the perceived destructive nature of the African forest elephant through its feeding habits is good for the forests’ health and the global climate. (P32) FRENCH | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | PORTUGUESE | SPANISH
Ian Redmond, the co-founder of the NGO Rebalance Earth, who has been researching and conserving elephants since 1976, cites Italian Biologist Fabio Benghazi as having carried out a comparative study in the Congo Basin RainForest.
“He [Fabio Berzaghi] compared two areas of the Congo Basin RainForest—one where there is a population of forest elephants and one where they were wiped out by Ivory poachers decades ago, and it turns out that the forest with elephants has between 7-14% more above-ground biomass—that is the weight of wood in the forest.”
He explained that forest elephants generally munch trees and plants smaller than 30 centimetres in diameter. Most of such trees die in the process, eliminating competition with the slow-growing, carbon-rich trees for water, fertilizer, and light.
The researchers used a model to predict what a forest where elephants had for years eaten those smaller trees would look like. They discovered that where elephants graze, the resulting forest has fewer trees with denser wood and higher above-ground biomass.
Redmond told IDN that is the type of forest that stores more carbon. In the real world, the researchers also found out that in forests where elephants graze, the trees have wood with a density of 75 grams per cubic meter more than those in forests without elephants.
“So, elephants, through their selective feeding, digest the vegetation that they have eaten and produce huge quantities of dung—one forest elephant produces roughly a metric ton of dung every week-52 week a year, walking through the forest—and of course, that dung decomposes into first-class organic fertilizer. So what the elephants effectively are doing is they are weeding the forest-feeding off the trees that don’t store much carbon and the plants and the lianas and the herbaceous growth and producing fertilizer which then gets used by the bigger trees which are storing a lot of carbon. The effect that has over many years is to enhance the ability of the forest to sequester and store carbon,” Redmond told IDN.
But the Congo Basin Forest elephants have been dwindling at an alarming rate; demand for Ivory in Southeast Asia is driving poaching here, but the researchers say this also is a consequence of inadequate knowledge of how beneficial elephants are if kept alive.
The elephant population in the Congo Basin Forest once stood at 1.1 million. Deforestation and poaching have reduced that population to less than one-tenth of its former size.
Fabio Berzaghi estimates that if the elephant population were restored to its former size, it would increase carbon sequestration by 13 metric tons per hectare of forest. He said this would mean Africa’s Forest elephants could capture well over 6000 metric tons of carbon per square kilometre, were the initial populations of the forest elephants to be restored—it is the same amount of carbon that 250,000 trees can capture.
The International Monetary Fund’s Dr Ralph Chami, who has done pioneering work on the economic value of Forest Elephants, notes that poachers, communities and countries stand to draw larger economic benefits from keeping the big mammals alive.
“The poacher has a choice to make: he can kill the elephant and make some money, or he can keep the elephant and make a lot more money for a lot longer time,” Chami told IDN.
He said a calculation of the total value of the services provided by forest elephants indicates that each elephant produces a service worth $1.75 million. That makes a huge difference from the paltry $40,000 poachers make on average for taking down an elephant.
“Poaching is the last resort of a desperate person,” Chami told IDN. He suggested that “maybe those poachers can become citizen scientists, they could be retrained to look after those elephants, and make a yearly salary that far exceeds every money they can make from poaching elephants”.
Redmond explained that his organization is working to “rebalance the earth”, whose ecological balance has been distorted and made more dangerous by deforestation, industrial expansion, mining, roads and railways.
“Forests are not only about the trees. It’s a whole ecosystem,” he said, and forest elephants play a central role in that ecosystem. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 March 2023]
Image: African forest. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom