Elephants – Nature’s ecosystem architects

People sometimes ask, that surely, if they cause this much damage, elephants must be bad for the environment and threaten the very survival of other animals around them?

For generations, elephants have captured the hearts and imagination of the world. These gentle giants of the African wilderness have been used throughout centuries as a representation of military might, wisdom, strength and royal power. If you look closely at the South African coat of Arms, you will notice it features four elephant tusks, which are used to symbolize South Africa’s strength, wisdom, moderation and eternity.

One of the privileges of living in nature is that we occasionally have elephants visiting our camp. Our unfenced camp is nestled in the Makuleke concession between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers. This beautiful camp, shaded by nyala berry trees is a true wilderness area, steeped with wildlife and situated in the remotest part of the Kruger National Park. At any time of the day, we can find ourselves silently watching these elephants close by from our tent decks.

At night, they silently sneak around the camp and sometimes when I’m lucky I have the pleasure of watching them while lying in bed. I see them silhouetted against the moonlight from my canvas windows. I hear them snapping the branches from the trees or the cracking sound of them pushing trees over. When they have had their fill, they then disappear back into the bush.

When going on game drives or walking in the bush it is easy to find proof that elephants have been there. Not only do we find their footprints in the sand, we also see their dung everywhere. We often see branches and twigs that have been chewed on and then discarded, trees that have been knocked over. If you look at our giant baobabs and other trees in the concession, you will notice that some of the trees have scars. These are caused by elephants who have stripped the bark to get to the precious inner cambium layer (a very thin layer of growing tissue that produces new cells) – sometimes the tree survives, sometimes it doesn’t.

People sometimes ask, that surely, if they cause this much damage, elephants must be bad for the environment and threaten the very survival of other animals around them?

That is not the case at all. Africa’s landscapes and biodiversity would look very different from what we know today if we didn’t have elephants. Let us explain why.

Elephants are classed as a keystone species, which means that they play an important role in preserving and maintaining the biodiversity of the ecosystems they inhabit. Here are some interesting facts:

An elephants dung is rich in minerals which is good for soil

Elephants can consume up to 300kg of plant material including leaves, grass, roots, fruits, bark or seed pods every day. Elephants are hindgut fermenters so all their food goes into a single stomach. The most digestible materials are easily absorbed and the most fibrous content, which can be up to 60% of their food, is excreted. This makes elephant dung extremely rich in minerals which can be recycled into the soil.

Elephant dung contains plant seeds which are widely scattered by elephants moving around

Elephants dung is also full of seeds from the many different species of plants that they eat. Wherever this dung is deposited these seeds have the potential to grow into new grasses, bushes and trees, further increasing the health of the ecosystem.  The genetic diversity of numerous plant species is maintained because their seeds are widely scattered by elephants, sometimes as recent studies have suggested as far away as 60km from the parent plant.

The knocking over of trees provide microhabitats for shorter browsing animals

Sure, elephants are destructive feeders; they will use their strength to push over trees to gain access to the green leaves on top. Bull elephants also like to push over trees to intimidate their rivals.  This may seem wasteful, especially if they don’t eat much of the tree they pushed over, but also has a positive ecological impact.  By knocking over trees, they provide food for shorter browsing animals like antelope or black rhino and they help create grasslands which allow other animals to thrive. These knocked over trees also create microhabitats, which shelter, protect and feed a variety of animals including insects, birds, small mammals and rodents. As these trees slowly decay, they provide the earth with extra nutrients.

Elephants help other animals access water

During the dry season or when a drought strikes, elephants will dig in seemly dry riverbeds for water. This not only allows the elephants to survive at a time of year when water is scarce, but it also provides water for other animals.

So, as you can see, elephants in their own way act as guardians of nature, helping to ensure a healthy and balanced ecosystem. The loss of elephants from a specific location also means a loss for the local ecosystem.

Unfortunately, elephants are targets for their prized ivory tusks which have put them at the centre of the illegal wildlife trade. This along with habitat loss and ever-increasing conflicts with humans mean that their population numbers are declining.  At the beginning of the 20th century, it was thought that there were as many as 5 million elephants roaming Africa and today it is estimated that there are between 500,000 to 415,000 remaining.

We need to take care of our elephants, our natural environment and our future because it will paint a very different picture if we do not. Educate yourselves about what you can do to make a difference.

Practice responsible tourism and visit these wonderful animals in the wild

It is never encouraged to partake in tourism activities that force wild animals to behave unnaturally. Examples of these include elephant back rides or watching captive circus elephants perform tricks for human enjoyment. You can enjoy these wild animals by observing them in the wild, in their natural habitat, in an ethical manner. With EcoTraining, you not only observe these animals, but you also have the opportunity to learn about them. As you have read above, there is more to this beautiful species and you can learn so much more.

Why don’t you enquire about our 7-day EcoQuest course? Just email Leana on enquiries@ecotraining.co.za and you can find yourself reconnecting with nature in a very special way.

If you want to learn more about the 7-day EcoQuest, click here to see what this course is all about.