Save Africa’s forest elephants if you want the Congo rainforest to continue
capturing carbon: Study
Rajat Ghai, Down to Earth
January 24, 2023
Africa’s iconic elephants are on the brink. But while the ‘African
elephant’ usually conjures images of the species found on the savannas of
the Continent (Loxodonta africana), it is its smaller cousin found in the
world’s second-biggest rainforest that holds the keys to global carbon
sequestration. That would go awry if the species bows out, according to new
The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) plays a key role in
creating forests which store more atmospheric carbon and maintaining the
biodiversity of forests in Africa.
If it becomes extinct, the Congo rainforest of central and west Africa
would lose between six and nine per cent of its ability to capture
atmospheric carbon, amplifying planetary warming, the research published
January 23, 2023, warned.
Stephen Blake, assistant professor of biology at Saint Louis University in
the United States and senior author of the paper, was quoted as saying by
the website Phys.org:
We can now add the robust conclusion that if we lose forest elephants, we
will be doing a global disservice to climate change mitigation. The
importance of forest elephants for climate mitigation must be taken
seriously by policy makers to generate the support needed for elephant
conservation. The role of forest elephants in our global environment is too
important to ignore.
How do forest elephants enhance carbon capture?
Blake and his colleagues found that these elephants acted as ‘gardeners of
the forest’. Each forest has low carbon density and high carbon density
trees. The former have light wood while the latter have heavy wood.
“Low carbon density trees grow quickly, rising above other plants and trees
to get to the sunlight. Meanwhile, high carbon density trees grow slowly,
needing 2/5 less sunlight and able to grow in shade,” Phys.org noted in its
The African forest elephant strips away the low carbon density trees. This
means that it removes the competitors of high carbon density trees. This
also enables the sunlight to reach more high carbon density trees.
The elephants also spread the seeds of the high carbon density trees across
the forest through their droppings.
“Elephants are the gardeners of the forest. They plant the forest with high
carbon density trees and they get rid of the ‘weeds,’ which are the low
carbon density trees. They do a tremendous amount of work maintaining the
diversity of the forest,” Blake was quoted as saying.
But the forest elephants of the Congo are imperilled. They are listed by
the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “Critically
Endangered” — a category for species that have declined over 80 per cent
within three generations.
Before the current paper, another one in November last year by the United
Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) had also drawn attention to the
link between African forest elephants and ecosystem services.