Quantcast

Elephants and Monkeys Are Working to Protect You From Climate Change

Animals
A herd of elephants. Pixabay

By Marlene Cimons

Mother Nature has it figured out. She's designed a master scheme that connects plants and animals, all working in concert to keep every living thing in balance. Imagine a stack of dominoes — knock down one of them, and the rest will tumble. The same can happen in nature.


This is especially evident in places like central Africa and in South American tropical rainforests where certain animals — from the world's largest to its smallest — help keep trees safe and healthy, which is critical as trees absorb vast amounts of planet-warming carbon pollution.

Recent research warns that losing the creatures that nurture trees puts forests in danger. This, by extension, is helping to accelerate dangerous climate change.

In central Africa, for example, elephants eat fast-growing trees, making room for those that grow more slowly. The slow-growing trees — with their very dense wood — store more carbon than their thinner, faster-developing counterparts. Without elephants, more carbon would accumulate in the atmosphere, worsening climate change, according to a new study that used computer models to project what could happen if elephant populations continue to dwindle or become extinct.

An elephant fuels up.

Pixabay

"Africa may once have contained 10 million elephants from the Mediterranean to the Cape, in every habitat except extreme desert. In 1970, there may have been a million left. By the end of the 1980s, there were half that number, mostly killed for the ivory trade," said Stephen Blake, assistant professor of biology at St. Louis University, and author of the study, which appears in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Despite an international agreement created to protect them, they face extinction as hunters persist in illegally killing them for ivory. Blake said that the price of ivory is so high that poachers will kill elephants of any size for their tusks, and go to gruesome lengths to remove them.

"How many cuddly [elephant] toys will be purchased this Christmas around the world?" Blake said. "Children everywhere will take them to bed, play with them, love them and be enchanted with the notion of these massive, gentle, humbled, wrinkled old animals… How many hearts touched?… Yet, as we do all these things, we live at a time when the last members of a once global and diverse lineage of these huge animals are being slaughtered."

African elephants.

Pixabay

By killing elephants, poachers rob slow-growing trees of their guardian. They also slow the growth of new trees. Elephants blaze trails and disperse seeds as they forage. "Elephants are basically the gardeners of the forest," Blake said. "They disperse over 100 species of seeds, and disperse more of them over longer distances that other dispersers."

"Without the restorative powers of the elephants, the forest becomes a broken shadow of its former glory," he added.

Similarly, some of the world's littlest creatures also help replenish forests, although they don't face the grave risks that elephants encounter. Tiny tamarins that live in Peruvian rainforests eat fruits from trees, then poop out the undigested seeds in degraded former pastures — land cleared by humans for grazing water buffalo — effectively planting trees.

A female emperor tamarin.

Brocken Inaglory

Scientists showed that two types of these squirrel-sized monkeys — moustached and black-fronted tamarins — are seeding new forests. This is vital because — like the forests of central Africa — tropical rainforests also store carbon, and are home to a vast number of plants and animals.

The scientists tracked seeds from the animals' feces deposited in the new forest and identified eight different plant species found in the main rainforest. "Tamarins can play a role for the natural regeneration of disturbed areas," said Eckhard W. Heymann, a scientist at the German Primate Center, who reported his findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

However, their contribution, while important, usually isn't enough to regenerate large tracts. "So it is better to protect the forests — which also protects the animals living there — than to rely on the services [of tamarins]." Moreover, climate change may be altering the plants that tamarins eat, changing when they produce leaves, flowers and fruits. This could limit tamarins' ability to seed new forests.

A baby tamarin.

Brocken Inaglory

Tamarins do not face extinction, like elephants, but are not without their own risks. While hunters usually reject them because they are too small to provide meat, "they are sporadically hunted or captured to obtain infants as pets," Heymann said. There is also the fact that forests are shrinking, meaning tamarins could lose their home. "The more serious threat at the moment comes from increasing deforestation," he added.

Blake, who has spent nearly 20 years in Africa working in elephant research and conservation, laments their fate, describing them as "a complex society of intelligent, caring, emotional animals who respect their grandmothers and mourn their dead," and condemns those who neglect their duty to save them.

"We will go to Mars — there is no doubt — humans are too smart not to," he said. "Yet we do not have the wisdom to protect elephants and their forest environment that do so much for our physical, spiritual and emotional well-being."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Pro-environment demonstrators on the streets of Washington, DC during the Jan. 20, 2017 Trump inauguration. Mobilus In Mobili / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Dr. Brian R. Shmaefsky

One year after the Flint Water Crisis I was invited to participate in a water rights session at a conference hosted by the US Human Rights Network in Austin, Texas in 2015. The reason I was at the conference was to promote efforts by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to encourage scientists to shine a light on how science intersects with human rights, in the U.S. as well as in the context of international development. My plan was to sit at an information booth and share my stories about water quality projects I spearheaded in communities in Bangladesh, Colombia, and the Philippines. I did not expect to be thrown into conversations that made me reexamine how scientists use their knowledge as a public good.

Read More
Mt. Rainier and Reflection Lake on Sept. 10, 2015. Crystal Geyser planned to open a bottling plant near Mt. Rainier, emails show. louelke - on and off / Flickr

Bottled water manufacturers looking to capture cool, mountain water from Washington's Cascade Mountains may have to look elsewhere after the state senate passed a bill banning new water permits, as The Guardian reported.

Read More
Sponsored
Large storage tank of Ammonia at a fertilizer plant in Cubatão, Sao Paulo State, Brazil. Luis Veiga / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The shipping industry is coming to grips with its egregious carbon footprint, as it has an outsized contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and to the dumping of chemicals into open seas. Already, the global shipping industry contributes about 2 percent of global carbon emissions, about the same as Germany, as the BBC reported.

Read More
At high tide, people are forced off parts of the pathway surrounding DC's Tidal Basin. Andrew Bossi / Wikimedia

By Sarah Kennedy

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC overlooks the Tidal Basin, a man-made body of water surrounded by cherry trees. Visitors can stroll along the water's edge, gazing up at the stately monument.

But at high tide, people are forced off parts of the path. Twice a day, the Tidal Basin floods and water spills onto the walkway.

Read More
Lioness displays teeth during light rainstorm in Kruger National Park, South Africa. johan63 / iStock / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

Ahead of government negotiations scheduled for next week on a global plan to address the biodiversity crisis, 23 former foreign ministers from various countries released a statement on Tuesday urging world leaders to act "boldly" to protect nature.

Read More