The Forest Elephant and Its Importance for the Environment
An Interesting and Important Animal
The forest elephant is a unique animal. It lives in tropical forests of Africa and is the smallest of the three elephant species. Researchers have discovered that its activities are beneficial for certain plants in the forest and potentially for the climate. The behaviour of the elephant may lead to a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which could be significant. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that can increase the Earth's temperature.
Unfortunately, the forest elephant population is in trouble. This is worrying not only because the animal is an intelligent and interesting creature but also because the environment could suffer if it becomes extinct. Saving the species would help the elephant and very likely help us as well.
Three Elephant Species
The scientific name of the forest elephant is Loxodonta cyclotis. (The African elephant is Loxodonta africana and the Asian species Elephas maximus.) The animal was once thought to be a subspecies of the African elephant, but scientists have decided that it's sufficiently distinct genetically to form its own species. Most sources refer to the animal as a separate species.
The African elephant is found on the savanna and in woodlands. The forest elephant is found almost entirely in forests but occasionally appears on the savanna. Since there is some similarity in the elephants' habitat, the term "forest elephant" (or bush elephant) is sometimes applied to Loxodonta africana.
An inexperienced investigator should look for reliable evidence indicating that the elephant in a photo, video, or real life is Loxodonta cyclotis. The appearance of the tusks is a clue for identifying the species, as described in the "Physical Features" section of this article.
Population and Habitat
Forest elephants live in tropical forests in western Africa and in central Africa around the equator. Despite their size, the animals are hard to find because they are often hidden by trees. This elusiveness has caused problems in determining their population size. The population in an area is frequently estimated by the appearance of dung deposits. Reliable sources agree that the animal is in trouble, but its exact status is uncertain.
The animals periodically emerge from the trees to visit watering holes and mineral licks surrounded by forest. This is one of rare times when the elephants are visible and why most of the photos and videos of the animals show them at watering holes. Unfortunately, the fact that the gathering places contain so many elephants has attracted poachers.
Physical Features of the Forest Elephant
Forest elephants are smaller than African elephants. The estimated size of the forest species varies according to the source. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an adult is said to be around eight to ten feet tall and weigh about two to five tons.
Another way to tell the species apart is the nature of their tusks. The tusks of the forest elephant point downward while those of the African elephant tend to point outward. Forest elephant tusks are also thinner than those of the African species, though the male's tusks are thicker than the female's. The tusks of the forest species sometimes have a yellow or pink cast. Unfortunately, their ivory is denser than that in the tusks of African elephants, making them more desirable for some poachers.
Elephants are fascinating animals, and I have studied them for more than 15 years. They are intelligent, sentient, and highly social.— Ahisma Campos-Arceiz, University of Nottingham
Diet and Life
Forest elephants are herbivores that eat mostly leaves, fruit, and bark. As they travel through the forest, they trample plants and create clearings and paths. This may give the impression that they are destructive animals. The process plays an important role in the forest ecosystem, however, as described below.
The watering hole in the video above attracts many elephants. According to Andrea Turkalo, a leading forest elephant researcher, the area serves several important functions. The elephants obtain water and important mineral salts while drinking. The area also has a social function because it acts as a meeting place. The researcher has seen elephants from different groups run to greet each other at the watering hole. Based on her studies, she knows that the greeters are relatives. Some males may challenge each other when they meet, however, as in the photo above.
A female produces her first child at around twenty-three years of age. The gestation period is about two years. The family unit consists of a female and her calves. Related females and their calves may travel together, but the oldest female acts as the matriarch of the group. The males leave the family group when they reach puberty and travel on their own or with other males. They mate with females located far away from their birth family. The normal lifespan of the elephants is sixty to seventy years.
Threats to the Population
The elephants are killed for ivory and meat. Poaching is a major problem. Even when poaching is illegal, countries may not have the resources to stop it. The scientist in the video below says that although the protection of African elephants is by no means perfect, it's good enough for some poachers to have changed their focus to forest elephants. Animal lovers may find killing the elephants for any reason abhorrent. In some areas poverty and hunger provide the motivation to hunt the elephants for food, however.
The elephants' habitat is decreasing due to the clearing of land for its wood, for human settlements, or for space to create plantations of various types. Mines for obtaining the Earth's natural resources have also destroyed elephant territory in some places.
Unfortunately, the loss of habitat is increasing the undesired contact between humans and elephants. The animals sometimes damage crops or trample humans to death and are destroyed as a result. Forest elephants may be the smallest species of elephant, but they are still powerful animals.
The loss of any elephant is important, but the death of a matriarch can be especially serious. Her long life has given her many experiences related to keeping her extended family healthy and safe. This knowledge is lost if she dies.
Analysis of the largest survey dataset ever assembled for forest elephants ... revealed that population size declined by ca. 62% between 2002–2011, and the taxon lost 30% of its geographical range.— Fiona Maisels et al, PLOS ONE
The Elephant Listening Project
Getting an accurate indication of how many forest elephants exist would tell us how urgent their situation is. Counting dung deposits or the animals at watering holes and mineral licks has limitations. One group of researchers is using a different method to count the animals. The Elephant Listening Project detects ultrasonic (low frequency) sounds emitted by forest elephants.
The fact that elephants release ultrasonic sounds was discovered by Katy Payne, an animal acoustics specialist. She is well known for her study of humpback whale songs. She discovered that the male whales alter their courtship songs over time.
In 1984, Katy realized that the elephants in an Oregon zoo were producing ultrasonic sounds. She confirmed the observation in wild African elephants. In 1999, she created the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. The goal of the project is to study ultrasonic sound in the forest elephant. It may sound strange that an ornithology lab is exploring elephant sounds, but the lab's equipment and other resources are well suited to the task.
The current researchers aim to match elephant sounds with specific behaviours and to discover whether ultrasonic sound is used for long-distance communication. They also want to learn more about family units and the animals that collect at gathering places. In recent years, another important goal has been to support elephant conservation.
Beneficial Effects on the Environment
The forest elephant produces two beneficial effects on its environment during its daily activities. It likely produces many more.
Some seeds of forest trees won't germinate unless they pass through the acidic condition of the elephant's stomach. The seeds–still viable–are deposited on the ground in the elephant's dung. They germinate to produce seedlings in the dung. Another benefit of the dung is that it recycles certain nutrients.
Preferential Survival of Slow-Growing Trees
Researchers from Saint Louis University have discovered that the elephants prefer to eat the tree species that grow rapidly, including the ones that grow in clearings that they create. The animals tend to leave slow-growing tree species alone, which thrive. The species that grow slowly have a higher wood density and absorb more carbon dioxide from the air than the rapid growers.
The researchers say that if the elephants disappear, the proportion of fast-growing trees to slow-growing ones will probably increase. This will likely decrease the amount of carbon dioxide that the forest absorbs from the atmosphere. The researchers have confirmed their real-life analysis with a sophisticated computer model that predicts forest changes based on the elephants' behaviour.
As far as I know, the significance of the carbon dioxide reduction due to elephant behaviour in relation to the total amount of the gas in the atmosphere hasn't been elucidated. At the moment, though, the planet needs all the help that it can get.
Carbon Dioxide: A Greenhouse Gas
Carbon dioxide is sometimes referred to as a greenhouse gas. An overview of how greenhouse gases warm the Earth is given below.
- Energy from the sun passes through the atmosphere and strikes the Earth's surface.
- The Earth radiates some of the energy back into the atmosphere as infrared radiation, which has a longer wavelength than visible light.
- Greenhouses gases absorb some of the infrared radiation and then re-emit it, sending some of it back towards the Earth. Though we can't see infrared radiation, we feel it and discover its effects as heat.
The function of greenhouse gases in keeping the Earth warm is helpful, but not when their effects are excessive. Several greenhouse gases exist in the atmosphere, but carbon dioxide is a major concern at the moment. In May, 2019, it reached the highest level in sixty-one years of observations at NOAA's Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory. Scientists say that the burning of fossil fuels and consequent release of carbon dioxide is the major factor responsible for the CO2 increase.
Supporting the Future
As places around the world experience unusually high temperatures, we are reminded that the Earth is going through a difficult time. The consequences might be severe if we don't find a solution.
Understanding and appreciating the status of forest elephants as well as their effects is vital. Though most scientists consider the animals to be a separate species, some sources still treat the forest elephant as a subspecies of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) because hybrid animals have been produced. The problem with this approach is that it may lead to a false assumption about the population status of forest elephants.
The Red List of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) is a respected collection of data about animals that classifies organisms according to their nearness to extinction. It classifies the forest elephant in the same species as the African elephant and in the "Vulnerable" category of the list. Classifying the forest elephant in its own species and in the "Endangered" category, as most scientists think is deserved, might trigger more action from those in a position to help the animal. Another problem with the IUCN decision is that it's based on a 2008 population assessment, which is a long time ago in terms of biology.
Forest elephants are fascinating animals to study. I hope they survive for their own sake. The fact that they may indirectly help to reduce the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is another reason to support their survival. The elephants and their forest could be a very important combination.
- Forest elephant information from the World Wildlife Fund
- Devastating decline of forest elephants from the PLOS ONE journal
- The forest elephant social network from Mongobay (This article is aimed at children but contains important information from an elephant researcher.)
- Protect forest elephants to conserve ecosystems from the phys.org news service
- Elephant extinction will raise carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from the ScienceDaily news service
- Elephants are our allies in the fight against climate change from The Conversation
- Information about the Elephant Listening Project from Cornell University
- Facts about the greenhouse effect from UCAR (based on work by NCAR, or the National Center for Atmospheric Research)
- Atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches record level from the phys.org news service
- African elephant population status from the IUCN
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Linda Crampton