On The Importance of Elephants
The great elephant is known to be valiantly strong, empathetic, and intelligent, possessing a retentive memory and complex emotional life. Despite lions being considered the kings and queens of the savannah, one could argue that elephants should wear the crown. If you witness a herd or even a small group of elephants at a watering hole, you may observe a holding pattern of other animals waiting patiently to approach upon the elephants’ departure. They run the show.
While lions do play a similar ecological role as apex predators, the herbivorous elephant is also a keystone species: a species that plays a unique and critical role in its ecosystem, and whose departure from that ecosystem would leave it drastically changed. Elephants’ significance in their respective environs cannot be argued, and this is a critical piece of the argument for their protection as their populations continue to be slashed due to human actions, including poaching and habitat loss. If elephants were to be lost, entire ecosystems would struggle and may even collapse.
Elephants are colossal animals—the largest land mammals in the world—and they require ample space to roam and live comfortably. African elephants trek and average of 15 miles per day according to elephantsforafrica.org, and they have been known to walk greater distances at times when nourishment is scarce. Considering the vast distances they travel through tough terrain, it is no surprise that daily food intake is significant: between 4-7% of body weight. When you weigh
seven tons (male, African bush elephants weigh up to seven tons, while females can grow to about three and a half tons), that is a massive amount of food.
So, why does this matter to the ecosystem? Elephants are unintentional gardeners, and each piece of their daily routine: the paths they walk, the food they eat, and the dung they subsequently drop, is important.
I’m fortunate to have the indelible aural memory of standing mere feet from a group of hungry bulls in Botswana. I was staying in a lodge situated on the riverbank of a forested peninsula in the Okavango Delta, near Shakawe, and the lodge manager took our small group on a guided walk of the property. Before we left, he mentioned that we may see elephants, but that they hadn’t been around in months; I didn’t want to get my hopes up, yet was cautiously optimistic. In any case, he instructed us to keep quiet during the walk and stay aware. Should we encounter elephants, we weren’t to run, but were to walk quickly back to camp.
It wasn’t far from the camp that our guide, Ashley, motioned for us to stop walking. We did, interest unanimously piqued and adrenaline flowing at the possibility of what he’d heard that we had not yet. Then, from straight ahead down the path, we heard a tree break and snap as it was ripped, root by root, from the dry, sandy earth. I had never stopped to consider the sound before. It was deafeningly loud in the otherwise quiet afternoon heat. You could tell, by the deep roots, that the trees were not small. It was humbling; I felt so small.
We’d found the elephants—not just one of them. We couldn’t see anything as they were downhill from us, but as we continued to stand in awe of the cacophony, Ashley counted and motioned. One, two, three, four elephants. Then, they crested the hill, and we were made to calmly take a few steps back. The group had smelled us, we were upwind, and now they were looking us over, sizing up the potential threat. I didn’t want to miss even a second by raising my camera; I just stood in awe and reverence.
Nobody can clear a path like a dexterous, determined elephant, and they offer other animals shortcuts through dense brush. Not only are these landscape architects continuously excavating new paths, they know ancient networks of paths that have been passed down from matriarchs through generations. In times of drought or other duress, a matriarch can and will lead her herd to water where she has known it to be before. This is where human encroachment and habitat loss can be especially damaging. If fences and highways are built across migration routes, not just for elephants, but also for any number of species, animals may not be able to reach vital resources.
In Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, there is a fortunate compromise that allows a lodge to exist along an ancient elephant path. Mfuwe Lodge was constructed in 1998, but unbeknownst to the builders, the lobby was on a herd’s route. Every year, the herd makes its way through the lobby, undeterred—and motivated by the juicy fallen fruits of the lodge’s mango trees. The lodge notes that at least three generations of the same elephant family have made the mango-motivated journey. They are typically witnessed there between October and December.
Unearthing trees and thorny bushes also leaves holes in dry riverbeds, which hopefully fill with water later to create additional access to water for many species (including humans). Elephants may also dig for water, finding it beneath the surface, creating wells that others may use. According to PBS, an elephant may draw up to two gallons of water from their wells. In addition, they are able to reach important mineral sources that may be buried.
From trunk to tail, elephants are undeniably impressive, but it doesn’t stop there—even their dung is a valuable component of an ecosystem. I mentioned that elephants are gardeners, and a good fertilizer is vital to any horticultural effort. And, given how much elephants eat each day, there is plenty of rich elephant fertilizer to go around. Their droppings improve soil quality, and they sometimes yield seeds and nuts that other animals may eat. Seeds that go uneaten are left to grow, possibly to be eaten by an elephant again in years to come.
The dung may even be home sweet home for any number of creatures. In Sri Lanka, several species of frog have been known to take up residence in manure piles left by Asian elephants. Dung beetles (which is actually a group of many beetle species, all of which utilize dung in some way) are an obvious addition to any list of dung enthusiasts. Many other beetles, scorpions, and insects make their homes in dung piles, and with some carnivorous dung beetles preying on dung-dwelling centipedes—it can be a small habitat in and of itself. In Etosha National Park, Namibia, I witnessed jackals toppling dung piles and later did some research. I learned that they do this to search for insects within the droppings that they can eat. So now we’ve hypothetically gone from elephant, to centipede, to beetle, to jackal—easily four rungs of the food chain.
Finally, humans have found creative, sustainable uses for elephant droppings, including recycling it into paper. It is also an all-natural mosquito repellent when burned, and once it has been lit and burned out, the smoke of what remains has been said to cure headaches, and maybe clear sinuses.
Elephants contribute vitally to Africa’s and Asia’s respective ecosystems, and the impact of their departure or continued decline would be felt by all. If the argument for
conservation for conservation’s sake is not enough, one must also consider the number of species that would struggle without elephants’ trailblazing, water-finding, and dung dropping. A keystone species is called that for a reason; when a keystone is removed, everything falls apart.