The conservation of habitat for key species has a positive impact on the population for many others due to them relying upon and sharing the same habitat type necessary for the long-term survival of the key species in question.
One such example is the conservation of forested habitats to benefit the dwindling Asian elephant population and the positive benefits this can have on the conservation of other species that similarly rely on the forests for their survival.
Asian elephants inhabit the dense forests and grassy plains across India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaya, and Sumatra. Gregarious by nature, they roam in family herds, feeding on grass, leaves, twigs and bark from more than 100 species of plants.
Elephant families roam over large areas to find food and water, but their habitats are shrinking significantly due to habitat loss and encroachment. Since 1979, the African elephant habitat has declined by over 50%, and Asian elephants now have only 15% of their original range. This means that they are finding it harder and harder to find enough food and water to survive.
The loss of habitat also means that elephants and humans are coming into conflict. As elephants struggle to find food, and are in closer contact with humans, they have turned to feeding on the crops that have encroached upon their former habitat. This has led to many human deaths and injuries, as farmers seek to defend their property. Humans retaliate by attacking elephants, causing their numbers to decline further, and causing immense suffering from inhumane and prolonged deaths.
Elephants are also under threat due to poaching. Elephants are killed so that their tusks and in some cases their skins can be sold in the illegal trade. Although the international trade in ivory was banned in 1989, there are still some thriving markets around the world.
This huge loss of habitat and the impact of poaching within Asia has led to Asian elephant numbers falling by at least 50% over the last three generations, and they’re still in decline today. With only 40,000-50,000 left in the wildthe species is classified as endangered.
This wide scale destruction has taken place despite our supposed love and respect for them and many cultures revere them as symbols of strength and wisdom.
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The loss of elephants is catastrophic to elephants as a species but is also having a further negative impact on the habitat they previously inhabited.
Elephants are ecosystem engineers, with their activities helping to promote the growth of vegetation essential to maintaining healthy forest habitats, which in turn increase carbon sequestration and help mitigate climate change.
Elephants play a major role in seed dispersal, soil aeration and nutrient cycling. As forest architects they provide an invaluable service by uprooting trees and creating holes in the forest canopy which allows light to reach plants closer to the ground, encouraging growth. This helps to open up areas of dense woodlands for generations of plants to thrive and provide food and habitat to numerous species.
Many large trees rely on large vertebrates such as elephants for seed dispersal and regeneration. Elephants roam over great distances and play a key role in spreading tree seedlings. They consume fruits, depositing their seeds in their dung and providing a perfect environment for the seeds to germinate and flourish.
The dependency of healthy ecosystems on elephants has been demonstrated In populations of forest elephants in central Africa, with more than a dozen elephant-dependent tree species suffering catastrophic population declines in new plant growths after forest elephants were nearly removed from their ecosystems. This is because the fruit-bearing trees all rely on forest elephants as their primary means of seed distribution.
Elephant dung is also an important source of food for a host of different types of dung beetles. Beetles both benefit from the nutrients within it and they bury the dug below the ground where their larvae can feed and grow. By doing this, dung beetles loosen tightly packed soil and help to deposit the crucial nutrition within the dung into the soil where it is needed the most to positively impact on plant growth.
Helping the dung beetles to flourish is good in itself, but in doing so they also become an important food source for numerous other species of birds and small mammals helping to support many more species.
Studies have also demonstrated that the presence of elephants increases concentrations of soil carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, essential elements for a healthy ecosystem. Elephant presence can even reverse the negative effects on soil health caused by the presence of cattle, helping not only to maintain but to also restore ecosystems.
With this in mind we can see that elephants really are essential for the health of the ecosystems they inhabit and in turn on the survival of the many millions of plant and animal species that also inhabit these ecosystems.
On World Wildlife Day 2022, it is the perfect opportunity to help organizations that are working to conserve elephant populations across the world and in doing so are helping to maintain the crucial biodiversity that will in turn help us to mitigate the negative impact of global warming upon our own lives.
Image by: Nguyen Phong Son. Courtesy of Animals Asia
Wildlife Protection Efforts
Animals Asia is one such organization that is currently doing work that aims to not only improve the welfare for individual on Asian elephants in Vietnam, but also support the government to conserve the wild elephant population in the region.
Wild elephant populations in Vietnam have been decimated by poaching, loss of habitat and, historically, capture for tourism and labor. Numbers have fallen to below 100, a figure conservationists say is unviable for their survival.
Animals Asia campaigns for an end to elephant riding and the cruel and unethical use of wild animals in tourism and entertainment. Investigations at wild animal venues are conducted to identify animal welfare concerns, which are reported to the authorities and used to influence positive regulatory change.
The organization also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Dak Lak government in 2021 to end elephant riding, which will not only have huge benefits for the elephants already suffering in this industry, but will also assist conservation efforts by reducing demand for wild elephant cubs to be poached and trafficked into this trade.
Animals Asia has already rescued 12 elephants in the ethical elephant tour program – the first in the country – at Yok Don National Park, while continuing to work with mahouts and authorities to promote the move towards a more sustainable and elephant-friendly tourism model, and educate schoolchildren and communities on animal sentience and conservation.
The article is written by Dave Neale, Animal Welfare Director, Animals Asia
Featured image by: Nguyen Phong Son. Courtesy of Animals Asia