Poaching is a widespread issue affecting elephants in Central Africa, but a new paper published in the journal Conservation Biology by Duke University researchers underscores how this heinous act can impact considerably more than just the elephants themselves.
Image Credit: John Poulson
The researchers reached their conclusion after analyzing more than 158 independent studies involving elephant poaching and how it impacts surrounding habitats. After cross-referencing their findings with statistical records regarding forest feature dynamics, they distinguished numerous ecological transformations that can take place after elephant populations shrink.
"Without intervention to stop poaching, as much as 96 percent of Central Africa's forests will undergo major changes in tree-species composition and structure as local populations of elephants are extirpated, and surviving populations are crowded into ever-smaller forest remnants," explained John Poulson from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the lead author of the study.
While it may appear unrelated at first, smaller elephant populations coincide with irregularities in nutrient and tree seed dispersal. Furthermore, understories aren’t cleared as frequently as they would be in habitats booming with elephants.
"Because they are very large animals, they can eat fruits and disperse seeds too big for other animals to digest. And because they are highly mobile, they help disperse these seeds far and wide through their dung," Poulson continued.
"Many of Central Africa's forests are nitrogen limited. Elephants help compensate by moving nutrients, especially nitrogen, across the landscape as they defecate. If populations continue to shrink, this nitrogen will be concentrated in smaller and smaller areas, limiting future tree growth elsewhere."
As it would seem, elephant poaching does significantly more harm to Central African ecosystems than initially realized. The results of the study serve as an alarming wake-up call, reminding us how imperative it is that we put a full stop to poaching in its entirety. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.
It should be interesting to see how animal conservationists will continue to mitigate animal poaching going forward. With a little luck, perhaps we can do more to save both elephants and the ecosystems they live in.