Elephants, wildlife and how they contribute to the climate


During the recent COP26 (26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the term “nature-based solutions” (NBS) received particular attention. These are activities that work with nature to simultaneously address societal challenges, climate change and biodiversity loss. Examples range from planting trees to restoring degraded land, to improving land or coastal management.

The majority of the world’s nations have pledged to implement them to tackle climate change, and there have been significant pledges of funding from the private sector.

This should be hailed as a way to repair damage to natural ecosystems. A rapidly growing evidence base demonstrates that a well-designed NBS can deliver multiple benefits (or ‘ecosystem services’), such as:

  • Flow control.
  • Prevention of soil erosion.
  • Increased soil fertility.
  • Regenerative food production.
  • Increased carbon sequestration.
  • Water purification.
  • Filling of the water table.
  • Fisheries restored.
  • Waste Management.
  • Elimination of pollutants.
  • Pollination.
  • Buffer extreme weather events.
  • Regulation of pests and diseases.
  • Protection of species.

In short, they can help solve several problems at once, but only if done correctly, in a way that protects and restores intact ecosystems with as close as possible to their full range of species.

Much of the emphasis recently has been on planting trees for carbon sequestration. However, simply planting trees does not necessarily equate to establishing a healthy forest with the complex functional web of interactions between species to produce the required impact. If it’s poorly managed, inappropriate, or planted in the wrong place, it can even do more harm than good.

The importance of diverse and complex ecosystems

Very diverse and complex ecosystems are more resilient to environmental changes and impacts such as storms, droughts, invasive species and disease. They can adapt to changing environmental conditions, protect against disruption and extreme events such as fire, pests and disease, and produce the range of ecosystem services on which humans depend. High soil biodiversity, for example, correlates with increased crop yields and reduced pests.

This includes the conservation and restoration of large wild animals. Wildlife has long been seen as something we conserve because we love it and believe it has an inherent right to exist. These are very valid reasons; however, this leads some to view wildlife as an optional supplement, a “good to have”, almost an expensive luxury that must be opposed to human development.

This attitude is changing. Research shows that the protection, restoration or introduction of large animals increases species diversity and the complexity of ecosystems, not only through their presence, but also through their impacts on vegetation and other species. By disturbing vegetation and soil, large wildlife can create microhabitats that allow new species to become established, facilitating landscape-scale resilience and adaptation to change.

The impact of wildlife on carbon

There are a myriad of specific examples demonstrating the impact of wildlife on carbon. It has been found, for example, that wildlife conservation is key to the ability of tropical forests to store carbon. The loss of wildlife also reduces the carbon storage capacity of forests by changing the structure and species composition of the ecosystem.

Animals also play an important role in the dispersal and germination of seeds. Elephants are particularly important (especially for large-seeded fruit species), acting as gardeners, carrying the seeds great distances before depositing them in their own small “grow bag” of manure. Studies have shown that tree species dependent on elephants for their dispersal suffered catastrophic population declines when forest elephants became extinct. They are also important in making nutrients available to other life forms and dispersing them throughout the landscape to fertilize the soil. Studies suggest that the extinction of large animals around 10,000 years ago resulted in nutrient deficiency in tropical forests, but this effect has been ignored because most studies have taken place in places where there is no has no large animals.

Their impacts on vegetation influence fire regimes, soil fertility and carbon sequestration in soils. The way herbivores disturb the landscape increases the amount of carbon trapped in hard-to-reach carbon stores. Half of the plant material consumed is excreted as manure and urine, which is easier for soil decomposers to break down than leaves and wood. Although decomposers release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during the process, most of it is sequestered in long-term soil stores.

The impact of elephants on vegetation also provides shelter for other creatures, such as lizards and birds; their rain-filled footprints provide breeding grounds for amphibians as well as a multitude of beetles, mites and other insects; and they dig down to the water below the surface in arid lands, creating small pools for other species.

In the oceans, whales have been proposed to impact carbon dioxide emissions in at least two ways. The carbon in their bodies is sequestered far from the atmosphere when they die and stored deep in the ocean. Their droppings and urine fertilize the ocean, resulting in phytoplankton blooms that capture large amounts of carbon dioxide, according to an IMF report equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide captured by four Amazon forests.

Large wild animals need large, interconnected areas. Protecting them indirectly protects the many other species that make up the ecological community of their habitat.

Reversing the decline of the natural world

Successful NBSs have been those that use integrated approaches across entire landscapes to conserve, restore and sustainably work with nature through long-term multi-stakeholder partnerships. These combine science with local and traditional knowledge and use participatory approaches that ensure strong ownership and community engagement, as evidenced by previous articles in this series describing the Mali Elephant Project. NBS are biodiversity-based and explicitly designed to reverse the decline of the natural world, seen as a crisis at least as serious as climate change.

Centuries of over-exploitation have created the perception that humanity is somehow distant and disconnected from nature, when in reality we deeply depend on the health of nature to protect our own. Recognizing that humanity and nature are one community with a common future helps us understand the need to achieve societal goals by aligning human systems with nature rather than being in conflict with it.

Ecosystem-wide elephant conservation in Mali’s Gourma through governance that improves local livelihoods in synergy with support to government plans and project implementation strategies received funding from the Fund of the European Union under the grant agreement no. FED / 2018 / 401-337

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© 2019. This work is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

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