October 29, 2018

9:15 am

Can Elephants Reverse Climate Change?

There is no disputing what 97% of global scientists acknowledge: climate change is real.

What we can do to reverse the effects of this threat to life on Earth, however, is one of the most pressing questions of our time. And now an international research team has announced a finding that we have a potential ally in the fight to preserve habitable temperatures for life on the planet: elephants.

In the research paper “Trophic Rewilding as a Climate Change Mitigation Strategy?” — published earlier this month in a special issue of the Royal Society’s journal ”Philosophical Transactions” on rewilding — the authors suggest that elephants can play a role in reversing rising global temperatures.

Elephants — along with other megaherbivores, such as rhinos and hippos — make subtle but essential atmospheric contributions through their diet and other habits.

Elephants in Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve, South Africa (James Oatway)

As one of the report’s authors — Professor Graham Kerley, director of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at Nelson Mandela University — explained to South Africa’s Business Live, “The mega browsers — in Africa these are the black rhino and elephant — help to maintain the balance in savanna systems between trees and grasslands, working in synergy with the mega grazers. Without the mega browsers, trees and bushes would take over the grasslands, and without them, grasslands would take over the tree and forest areas.”

And that is important because, as Kerley notes, “in addition to their role as water production areas, [grasslands] reflect the sunshine, and therefore reduce solar radiation.”

Elephants are further a keystone species, which contribute critical assets to ecosystems. Kerley notes that “The megaherbivores also play a major role in nutrient recycling, soil health and seed dispersal. Elephants, for example, contribute to the dispersal of the seeds for hardwood trees and are therefore essential to the growth of hardwoods that grow slowly and hold their carbon for long periods.”

The paper was just one of a few included in the special rewilding issue of the Royal Society’s journal. As noted by European Scientist magazine, the idea of “trophic rewilding” is to “return ‘missing’ species, such as lions, giant tortoises, dam-building beavers, or herds of grazers, to landscapes in which they once thrived to restore ecosystems.”

That idea is very much in keeping with the translocation efforts in the Moving Giants campaign, in which 200 elephants are being moved from South Africa to Mozambique. The move can help save two ecosystems: both the one in South Africa (De Beers Group’s Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve, which has 200 elephants too many for its ecosystem to handle) and the one in Mozambique (Zinave National Park, which has lost its elephants in a brutal civil war and without them will never reach its full habitat potential).

As the editors of the Royal Society’s rewilding issue write, “Rewilding is increasingly implemented in practice globally, with a strong emphasis on Europe and the re-introduction of large herbivores.”

The international authors of the “Trophic Rewilding” paper — who hail from North America, Europe and Africa — note that that their megaherbivore proposition is not a single solution, “but a contribution to the climate change mitigation strategy.”

But if they are onto something, this could yield incredibly important results for the planet. “If megaherbivores do play a significant role in climate change mitigation,” they add, “Africa could play a major environmental and economic role in making them available to the rest of the world.”