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News24.com | Elephant diet choices are helping fight climate change

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  • Elephants’
    preference for small tasty leaves and large sweet fruits is helping mitigate
    global warming.
  • By feeding
    off small, leafy trees, larger trees are left with more space to grow and can
    absorb carbon dioxide.
  • Research
    shows that forests with elephants hold more carbon than those without.
  • For climate change news and analysis, go to News24 Climate Future.

Elephants’
preference for tasty leaves and large sweet fruits is helping mitigate global
warming, according to new research that shows the importance to protect the
mega-herbivores from extinction.

Asian and
African elephants like to eat from small, leafy trees, leaving larger trees more
space to grow. The latter absorb and store more planet-warming carbon dioxide
and, as a result, forests with elephants hold more carbon than forests without
them, according to a study published at Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences Ecology on Monday.

The
findings draw a direct link between the conservation of the giant herbivores
and forests’ capacity to store carbon. They come just weeks after a UN
biodiversity summit in which countries agreed a landmark deal to ensure
protection of a third of the Earth’s land and oceans by 2030. The accord is
expected to encourage the finance industry to assign a price to natural
resources that had previously been treated as cost-free.

READ | Rapid
development is main threat to big carnivores – study

The African
forest elephant is listed as “critically endangered,” while the
African savanna elephant is classified as “endangered” by the
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organisation
made up of governments and civil society organisations that studies and ranks
the status of different species.

About 80%
of the population of African forest elephants has disappeared in less than a
century, a trend that’s continuing and likely irreversible, according to the
IUCN. The shrinking of their natural habitat as human population expands and
poaching are among the main causes of the decline.

Yet the
animals also contribute to biodiversity and carbon capture through the spread
of seeds embed in their dung, researchers found. Forest elephants travel great
distances and have a daily food intake of between 100 and 200 kilograms of over
350 species. As a result, they move more seeds of more species than any other
animal.

READ | Sighting
of rare lizard on West Coast could impact future development plans

Researchers
combined a previously unpublished dataset with public data and came up with a
model that analysed nearly 200 000 records of feedings covering close to 800
plant species. Elephant feeding data was collected in the Nouabalé-Ndoki
National Park in the Republic of Congo, while forest inventories were taken
near the Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a
scenario without elephants, smaller, more leafy trees would thrive, while
larger trees wouldn’t have as much room to grow and wouldn’t spread as fast.

Overall,
that would result in a smaller capacity by forests to capture and store carbon.
The simulation ran by researchers showed that, without elephants, capacity to
store carbon would be diminished by 5.8% and 9.2% for forests studied in the
Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, respectively.

 



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