The loss of elephants accelerates climate change.
- Elephants help keep the central African forests they live in healthy.
- Without elephants, the forests see a striking reduction in their carbon dioxide-storage capacity.
- Study calls elephants "natural forest managers."
As long as there's profit in it — and as long as there are those who simply enjoy killing animals — we're likely to continue losing elephants, and it's a disturbing loss.
To see these endearing, intelligent creatures taken down by people — humans — is nothing short of heartbreaking. Today, new research, published in the July installement of Nature Geoscience, reveals their decimation isn't just a moral issue — the loss of forest elephants damages the carbon-storage capacity of the central African forests in which they live.
The researchers write: "Large herbivores such as elephants, can have important effects on ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles."
Image source: Siegfried.modola/Shutterstock
Led by ecologist Fabio Berzaghi of Climate and Environmental Sciences in France, researchers collected field measurements of forests in the Congo basin, comparing the tree densities and composition of areas in which elephants are still present, and areas in which they no longer live. It's estimated that the animals' overall population has been reduced 10 percent from historical levels.
What the analysis reveals is that forests in central Africa no longer home to elephants are characterized by a reduction in larger trees, and critically, fewer hard-wood trees. These trees have a more robust CO2 storage capacity than soft-wood trees.
The trick to working out the impact of losing elephants is that their influence on forest ecosystems plays out over a longer term — think 100 years — than the period for which data is available. To address this, the researchers developed computer simulations that exposed changes in the way different types of trees compete for nutrient, water, and light with and without elephants.
The researchers concluded that without the creatures, some three billion tons of carbon would no longer be captured by the forests — that amount is roughly equal to France's total carbon emissions for 27 years. That's about a 7 percent reduction in the forests' ability to absorb the greenhouse gas.
Co-author Chris Doughty sums it up this way: "Our simulations suggest that if elephant loss continues unabated, central African forests may release the equivalent of multiple years of fossil fuel CO2 emissions from most countries, thus potentially accelerating climate change. Therefore, their loss could have a drastic impact both locally and on global climate."
How elephants change forests
Image source: David JC / Shutterstock
Experts already suspect this link, but the new study for the first time comprehensively quantifies it. Previous guesses about how elephants have such a striking effect on their habitats' biomass have focussed on seed dispersal via defecation, generally moving things around, and stepping on and crushing small trees. All of these things seem to be true. Berzaghi says, "Forest elephants are natural forest-managers that thin forests by 'pruning' or removing small trees which increases the growth of large trees and the production of wood."
A obvious solution
Image source: GUDKOV ANDREY / Shutterstock
Stop killing elephants.
"Our study shows that even at high population densities, forest elephants continue to improve the carbon storage potential of central African forests, so there is no ecological concern for their comeback," says Berzaghi. Increasing their population size in these forests carries with it no discernible risk.
Their resurgence would also confer benefits beyond better carbon storage. Study co-author Stephen Blake notes that "Forest elephants are the gardeners and guardians of biodiversity in the Congo Basin." Their seed dispersal alone, according to the study authors, contributes to the germination of over 100 tree species that provide habitats for birds, primates, and insects.
Poachers trade on a black market estimated to total $40 billion. It’s impossible to stop every poacher, but new technology could bolster the efforts of conservationists by putting a set of eyes in the sky.
Poaching takes a brutal toll on the world’s wildlife every year. By the thousands, rhinos are for killed for their horns, elephants for their ivory, and tigers for their bones and exotic pelts. To protect these animals, rangers and conservationists must monitor enormous swaths of land, day and night, looking for poachers who trade on a black market estimated to total $40 billion. It’s impossible to stop every poacher.
New technology could bolster the efforts of conservationists, though, by putting a set of eyes in the sky. Air Shepherd, a conservation group, recently field tested an AI drone system that’s able to automatically detect humans and animals through infrared thermal imaging. The SPOT (Systematic POacher deTector) system, developed by researchers from Carnegie Mellon, the University of Southern California, and Microsoft, can be operated on a common laptop with a wireless internet connection, allowing park rangers to get advanced knowledge of poachers’ movements so they can be intercepted. It could also provide park rangers a heads-up in situations where they’re heading toward a large group of armed poachers.
The researchers trained the system through deep learning, a branch of A.I. that seeks to enable computers to learn and recognize patterns in the world — images of animals and poachers, in this case. First, the SPOT system was shown a series of images in which humans had marked where the animals and humans were. Then, the system used that information to learn about what to look for on its mission.
A paper published by the researchers in November, 2017 describes the deep-learning process in greater detail.
The idea is to flood the markets and drive prices down. Contrary to what you may think, a rhino horn is not made of bone but of keratin - the material found in nails and hair.
Rhino poaching continues to be a big threat to the rhino population numbering a mere 30,000 animals globally. China and Vietnam are the biggest markets for rhino horns, which are primarily used for ornamental and medicinal purposes with no scientific basis.
The higher the prices of rhino horn, the more incentivized poachers are to take risks and continue the illegal trade. Rhino horn prices peaked in 2012 at $65,000 a kilogram, and even though environmental organizations don’t want to detail current prices out of fear of sparking more poaching, prices have remained high enough to motivate attacks like the one in a French zoo in March this year, where poachers killed and sawed off the horn of a white rhino.
Credit: Save the Rhino
Conservationists' efforts have been mainly targeted at finding ways to reduce the demand for rhino horn. Some African nations are also preemptively dehorning rhinos so that they become of no interest to poachers - a practice that is dangerous for the animal and needs to be repeated every couple of years.
Recently, some high-tech companies have been betting on a different approach. Pembient is one of several start-ups that wants to produce fake rhino horn, indiscernible from the real one. The idea is to flood the markets and drive prices down.
Contrary to what you may think, a rhino horn is not made of bone but of keratin - the material found in nails and hair. The horn is actually a compacted mass of hair that grows throughout the animal’s life.
Pembient’s initial approach was to make horn powder using proteins found in rhino horn and in microorganisms like yeast. This method didn’t deliver the desired quality, however, so now Pambient is working on cultivating horn from rhinoceros stem cells and selling it as raw material for ornamental uses.
Conservationist organizations are not fond of the approach, however. The position of the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International is that selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn and, in fact, more than 90% of “rhino horns” in circulation are already fake. In addition, synthetic horn could give credibility to the notion that rhino horn has medicinal value and could normalise or remove the stigma from buying illegal real horn.
Matthew Markus, Pembient's founder, has the opposite view. He not only believes that reducing the demand is “infeasible”, but that it is not really ethical either.
"These practices are based on thousands of years of cultural tradition — they're a lot older than Thanksgiving. We can't just tell them to stop.” - he says for Business Insider.
It is difficult to say what the effects of the fake rhino horn will be. As of now, Pembient is still in development of the substitute and cannot even name its price yet. Nevertheless, the company claims on its website that when the news of their product went viral in 2015, it resulted in a decline in rhino poaching "attributable to frightened speculators leaving the market ahead of an impending influx of questionable horn carvings."
One thing is sure - a broad range of strategies are needed to address the illegal trade and save the rhinos and it will likely be best if all stakeholders worked together to achieve this goal.