What would happen if there were no elephants?

Feb 22, 2019 | Commentary

By Dr. Keith Lindsay

The question of elephants going extinct is an increasing possibility. In the 19th century, there were between 3 to 5-million elephants. Now there is an estimated number of 400,000 individuals across the continent. According to current rates of poaching, if nothing is done to protect them from poaching and loss of habitat, they could be gone in the wild in less than 20 years. So, before it’s too late, let us reflect how useful and vital to the environment these magnificent creatures are.

Ecosystem engineers

Elephants are referred to as ecosystem ‘engineers’, ‘architects’ or ‘gardeners.’ This is because they shape, build and rejuvenate natural landscapes. Elephants foraging on vegetation replenishes the structure of plant communities, and these, in turn, influence the food supply for a host of animals from mammals to insects. Ecosystems without elephants would struggle to support themselves.

For example, elephants break branches off trees, sometimes the entire tree itself. It may seem destructive, but this creates micro-habitats for seedlings and small animals, like mongooses, and invertebrate animals such as butterflies. The downed branches allow smaller browsers, like impala, to benefit from the otherwise unreachable foliage. Through their feeding habits elephants maintain structure in savannahs by reducing the tree-to-grass ratio, which benefits grazers such as buffalo and create nutrient rich micro-climates underneath dead trees, allowing new sprouts to emerge, thus creating a new tree in place of the old.

Elephant dung is a vital food source for dung beetles and a variety of birds like the spurfowl and quails who, in turn, provide a seed dispersal mechanism for many tree species. Other bird species such as the ground hornbill and the pearl-spotted owlet rely on elephants to create nesting sites in hollows of the old dead trees knocked over by elephants.

Furthermore, the large size of an elephant creates pathways through the thickets for other smaller species, such as smaller species of antelope, predators and even for humans when hiking through the African bush.

Overall, elephants greatly increase biodiversity, benefiting almost everything from mites to mammals.

In savanna ecosystems, elephant influences on vegetation are localised and often near water where their impact is more pronounced, while further away their effect is weak or even absent. These different forces produce a healthy heterogeneity within the ecosystem, with differing vegetation growths depending on the distance from water. Interestingly, there is greater variety or diversity of plant and animal species in landscapes where elephants are present than those where they are absent.

One of the most significant effects of elephants on natural habitats is the dispersal of seeds and fruits for a variety of tree species in the forested areas of central and West Africa. Here, some tree species have fruits with large seeds that cannot be dispersed by any species other than elephants. An absence of elephants from a forest ecosystem therefore would upset the balance so severely that many tree species would die out entirely.

In addition, elephants can ‘engineer’ resources such as water supplies in savannas by digging in riverbeds. In the dry months, elephants dig holes in riverbeds to access water, which is then made available to all other water-dependent species. In forests, where minerals are limited, they dig for salt sources and bring them to the surface, creating open patches or bais that serve as resources for a wide range of animals. 

Biodiversity supports all life

In short, if elephants were completely eliminated or prevented from roaming freely within a broad ecosystem, these ecosystems will cease to flourish. They will become less diverse and, in some places, will collapse to over-simplified impoverishment.

For many humans now living in towns and cities, the wild environment is often something one watches on television, and consequently generates little concern. However, try as we may to remain apathetic, without the services provided by the natural environment, including clear and reliable water supplies, carbon storage, and the very oxygen we breathe, it is quite conceivable that we humans will be joining other species in going extinct. Biodiversity is a complex, interactive, global system of flowing energy and nutrients, both a product and a creator of natural resources. From the emergence of life on earth some 3.5 billion years ago, biodiversity has become the most vital feature of our planet. Elephants, the great grey shapers of forests and savannas, maintain biodiversity. Without them, a host of other species, including humans, may be lost as well.