Gardeners of the Forest

Rumbling roamers
till the earth,
treading lightly
on giant feet
to tend their plots
with trunk
and tusk
and toe.
Nature’s plough
digesting bark and seed
to renovate old paths
as fresh and thirsty beds;
memories etched deep
in the wrinkles of their skin,
reaching for a certainty
that will not out last
their touch.

African forest elephants and lowland bongos on the banks of the Sangha River in the Central African Republic (Image Credit: Gregoire Dubois).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has found that elephant extinction could have a major impact on atmospheric carbon levels.

Megaherbivores, or very large animals that eat plants, can influence the structure and functioning of ecosystems by selectively eating certain plant species, which can alter the composition of the plant community and influence the growth and survival of certain plant species. They can also play an important role in seed dispersal, which in turn impacts the regeneration and diversity of plant species in an ecosystem. By promoting the growth of larger, high-wood-density trees, megaherbivores can increase the amount of carbon stored from the air. As such megaherbivores can shape carbon sequestration over very large areas, and with it the potential to mitigate some of the effects of the climate crisis.

In this new study, researchers investigated how elephants in tropical forests have a significant impact on this carbon sequestration. Using a dataset of nearly 200,000 records and covering over 800 plant species, the researchers found that elephants aid in increasing carbon uptake through their feeding patterns and browsing preferences. Firstly, by eating leaves from plants that have a lower wood density, which makes them tastier and easier to digest, and in turn helps promote the growth of trees with higher wood density. And secondly, by spreading the seeds of trees that are larger and have the highest average wood density among different types of trees. The study also showed that if elephants were to disappear, it would cause an increase in the number of small, fast-growing trees with low wood density, which would lead to a 6-9% decrease in the amount of carbon captured from the air. This research shows how important megaherbivores like elephants are for keeping tropical forests diverse and helping to store carbon, thereby helping to fight the climate crisis on a global level.

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