By David Goodman
They are one of the shyest and most elusive inhabitants of West Africa. Now scientists have discovered that forest elephants play a key role in curbing global climate change.
Unlike iconic savanna elephants that roam the plains of sub-Saharan Africa, African forest elephants are the smaller cousins that are found in the rainforests of West Africa and the Congo basin.
In a 2019 study, scientists found that African forest elephants help counter climate change by promoting the growth of large trees that act as carbon stores. The elephants do this by stomping down smaller trees and eating softwood trees. The result: large hardwood trees flourish. This was evident as I hiked through Sapo National Park in southeastern Liberia with biomonitoring rangers working with the USAID-funded West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WA BiCC) program and its partners, Fauna and Flora International and Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority. Sapo’s lush forest is crowned by numerous hardwoods, some that tower 70 meters high and are impervious to being crushed or eaten by elephants.
African forest elephants, which are found throughout the Upper Guinean forest, are critically endangered due to widespread poaching and loss of habitat. Between 2002 and 2011, the species declined by 62 percent throughout Africa. In a Gabon preserve, there was a staggering 80 percent decline in the population of forest elephants between 2004 and 2014.
Poaching not only negatively impacts local economies, biodiversity and the rule of law—it indirectly contributes to climate change. If elephants were to be wiped out, researchers have estimated there would be a 7 percent loss of vegetation. The resulting loss of carbon storage is equivalent to France’s CO2 emissions for 27 years.
In a world where the health of ecosystems is intimately connected, the fate of the earth may be closely tied to the fate of African forest elephants.