Elephants tear down the forest so there are plains. When the trees grow up again, the elephants tear them down again.
When there are not enough elephants, the trees take over and the plains animals, such as zebra and impala, suffer.
Elephants use their noses to smell for water deep underground. They use feet and their tusks to dig water holes. Water is usually two to four feet down, but it can be much deeper.
Many species, especially the wildebeest, depend on elephants to dig water holes during the dry season.
This is the end of the dry season, a few days after a quick rainfall. Soon, this water hole (dug by elephants) will be less muddy and full of clear water.
Elephants use their tusks to scrape away at rocks in order to lick up the minerals. Most licks are on the the walls of riverbanks. Other animals depend on the elephants to open the licks.
You can see the tusk marks in this mineral lick.
Elephant dung is barrel-shaped and falls apart easily. It is very fibrous, often full of grass and sticks, especially if the elephant is old or sick and cannot digest his food well.
Elephants digest about half of what they eat. Like this baboon, many species pick through elephant dung to find soft, manageable nuts, seeds and grains.
African elephants are integral to the ecosystem. They clear the forest so the plains can exist. They either eat their way through an area or go on aggressive rampages, making space for new grasses to grow. When the grasses grow into bushes and trees again, the elephants plow them down again. In his new book, wildlife photographer Robert Ross, who studied the Selous from 2008 to 2014, says, “There has been a noticeable habitat change because of the loss of elephants. . . They’re not coming through the country as much. It’s returning to thicket. The elephants aren’t there anymore to keep those areas clear” (Burnett). He is right; without elephants, there would be fewer plains and fewer plains animals.
Elephants also matter to the ecosystem because they create and maintain walking trails, clearing them of grass and bush as they go. These trails not only help the other species get around, but they are the lines that stop lightning fires from sweeping across the savannah. Of course, fire is a good thing when it clears land for new growth, but uncontrolled, unstoppable fire is not a good thing. Only elephants make such trails; without them, fire would ravage the land.
Elephants are also important to the circle of life. Most importantly, they regenerate the soil as the greenery they uproot decomposes and returns nutrients to the ground. Elephant dung also spreads moisture, nutrients and plant seeds. Research shows that more than a dozen tree species, such as the Balanites, depend on elephants for seed dispersion. There are even some plants, such as the marula tree, whose seeds get ready to germinate only as they pass through the elephants’ digestive tract. Without the elephant, many plant species would suffer.
Elephants also help other animals survive. In the beginning of the rainy season, the depressions made in the mud from the elephants’ footprints hold water for other animals to drink while they wait for more rain. During the dry season, elephants dig waterholes in the dry river beds. Elephants also sniff out and scratch open mineral licks, such as salt licks, which other animals need. Finally, the elephant’s digestive system softens nuts and seeds so baboons, birds and bats can break them open and eat them. Without elephants, many other animals would have a hard time getting the water, minerals and food they need. In fact, because of the recent elephant poaching and the resulting loss of wildlife, in 2014 UNESCO added the Selous to its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.
Elephants are also important because people can study them to find cures for human illnesses. Scientists have noticed that African elephants get cancer much less often than humans. They say African elephants “have at least 40 copies of genes that code for p53, the protein well known for its cancer-inhibiting properties,” whereas humans have only two copies of those genes (Muchangi). The senior author of the study says, “Nature has already figured out how to prevent cancer. It’s up to us to learn how different animals tackle the problem so we can adapt those strategies to prevent cancer in people” (Cookson).
Another reason to protect elephants is that studying them may help us understand other animals, including ourselves. Elephants have sophisticated social systems; they understand mortality and mourn the dead; they have superior spatial awareness; and they communicate over long distances. It has also been shown that they can discern among human voices, languages and cultures; that their brains have more complex folds than any animal besides the whale; and that their brains have a more developed hippocampus (the brain region responsible for emotional awareness) than any other animal. Learning how elephants function could help us understand ourselves.
Elephants are also important because they generate money in countries that need it. Hundreds of thousands of tourists go on photographic safaris hoping to see the “Big Five,” including elephant, lion, rhino, hippo and leopard. In Tanzania, photo-tourism has recently surpassed hunting, now bringing in 17% of the GDP (“Press Environment”).
Most importantly, regardless of whether the elephant is important to the ecosystem, to the circle of life, or to humans, the elephant species is important because it is a species, and nobody wants to see an entire species disappear.
Humans burn elephant dung to scare off tsetse flies, which carry diseases.