African forest elephants, officially recognised as a unique species in 2001, thrive in the tropical forests of Africa, boasting distinct features such as a smaller build, different tusk shape, and distinctive habitats compared to their savanna counterparts.
Unfortunately, the IUCN reports an alarming 86% decline in the forest elephant population over the last 31 years, primarily attributed to habitat loss and the ivory trade. As scientists have begun to intensify their research on these remarkable creatures, the profound impact of forest elephants on their ecosystems is coming to light. This article delves into how these large mammals shape the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, their impact on the surrounding ecosystem and how they will cope in a changing climate.
Economic and Ecological Significance
The IMF estimates that a single forest elephant provides ecological services valued at a staggering 1.75 million dollars. While such monetary assessments are good at guiding conservation decisions, they inadequately capture the true impact these elephants have on their ecosystems. The intrinsic value of forest elephants extends far beyond mere quantifiable metrics.
Climate Change Mitigation Efforts
Recent research indicates that forest elephants actively contribute to climate change mitigation by shaping the forest structure. Their unique behaviour, such as pulling saplings from the ground, reduces competition, fostering the growth of high wood density trees capable of sequestering significant amounts of carbon. The Congo forest, harbouring some of the largest trees with extensive carbon storage, could be a crucial player in mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Gardeners of the Forest
Forest elephants function as true gardeners of the forest, playing a pivotal role in seed dispersal crucial for maintaining biodiversity. Some seeds, like the Omphalocarpum, a football-sized fruit, rely solely on elephants for dispersal.
Based on the analysis of 855 dung piles, it has been estimated that African forest elephants disperse a daily mean of 346 large seeds per 1 km2 (0.39 sq mi) of at least 73 tree species; they transport about a third of the large seeds for more than 5 km (3.1 mi).
As elephant herds traverse the forest, they create well-trodden pathways known as boulevards, depositing seeds in their dung, thus establishing pathways lined with fruit-bearing trees. Elephants essentially become gardeners, shaping the forest and creating their own food rich corridors.
Bais: Unique Clearings and Social Arenas
Beyond boulevards, the Congo rainforest boasts unique mineral-rich clearings, known as bais, vital for elephant socialization and nutrient intake. Visited by up to 80 elephants daily, these clearings are maintained by elephants as they consume the vegetation within and around the bais. These clearing then serve as important social arenas for many species.
Gorillas, in particular, utilize bais to socialize, facilitating migration and improving reproductive success. The closure of these clearings would impact many of the forest’s animal species including spotted hyena, forest buffalo, sitatunga and bongos.
Human Impacts and Conservation Challenges
Human activities, such as oil exploration and cobalt mining in the Congo, contribute to habitat loss, adversely affecting forest elephants. While the DRC holds economic potential, sustainable alternatives like tourism must be considered to balance economic development with wildlife conservation.
Climate Change Concerns
Researchers have also expressed concerns about the potential impact of climate change on forest elephants. Long-term studies in central Gabon reveal a correlation between temperature changes and reduced fruit and flower production. This raises concerns about the impact of a changing climate on the forests and the elephant populations within them.
In conclusion, the African forest elephants, recognized as a distinct and critically endangered species, emerge not only as majestic inhabitants of the tropical forests but as vital custodians of their ecosystems. The challenges they face, including habitat loss, the ivory trade, and the looming threat of climate change, underscore the urgency of conservation efforts.
Image by wirestock on Freepik