Of mammoths and other elephants
Ask anyone for an example of a large, long extinct mammal that once roamed the earth throughout vast ranges in its millions, and ‘mammoths’ would likely be many people’s answer.
As recently as 15,000 years ago, many of modern elephants’ ancestors were spread throughout the globe, but as the climate changed and their favoured open grassland habitat gave way to forest and tundra, mammoths increasingly found themselves in smaller and more secluded populations. They might still have survived to the present day had this been their only problem, but what seems to have conclusively consigned them to the pre-history books is an additional onslaught - hunting by man.
Few would realize or even suspect that a similar turn of events is unfolding in an eerily similar way for one of the mammoth’s surviving cousins. While all three elephant species remaining today - Asian, African savannah and forest elephants – are in serious trouble from the dual threats of habitat destruction (in this case due to human activity) and hunting, it is the fate of the African forest elephant which seems most closely linked to that of its distant ancestors.
Recently shown to be a genetically distinct species, forest elephants have adapted to moving around in dense tropical forests by evolving straighter tusks, more rounded ears and smaller bodies than their savannah counterparts. Although thought to have been protected by their impenetrable forest habitat in the colonial era, and thus emerging relatively unscathed from the ivory pillaging that swept across African savannahs in the 1970s and 1980s, this inherent protection is being fast eroded away.
Logging and mining operations are opening up large swathes of previously undisturbed forest to poachers, who can now gain access to remote locations via the vast road network spreading through elephant habitat. Meanwhile the illegal ivory trade is thriving, fuelled by demand from a rising middle class in the Far East and aided and abetted by civil unrest in range countries, a failure to close legal loopholes and enforce domestic and international trade bans in ivory processing and consumer countries and a network of highly organized crime syndicates rising to meet demand with supply. To make matters worse for the forest elephant, their tusks have a slightly pinkish colour and are more finely grained than that of their savannah relatives, making them particularly prized by ivory carvers. The result is a poaching onslaught sending forest elephant numbers into freefall.
Of course, being a keystone species, losing the forest elephant means problems for a whole host of other species and the ecosystems in which they live. Elephant experts have described forest elephants as ‘gardeners of the forest’ and ‘ecosystem engineers’, in relation to their consumption of vast amounts of fruit from many species of trees and depositing them perhaps kilometers away, together with a generous helping of dung as a natural fertilizer. Some tree species even depend on this process, with only seeds that have passed through the gut of an elephant able to germinate in natural conditions. In addition, elephant activity can break branches and even fell trees, creating light gaps which encourage the emergence of new plants and thereby affect forest composition. These processes are of great significance not just for the trees themselves but also for the myriad species which depend on the specific forest structure which elephants help create, from mosses and fungi to insects, small vertebrates and ultimately the entire ecological community.
So with time running out fast for forest elephants, are we destined to lose yet another species from the elephant family? Some believe it to be no longer relevant whether we learn the lessons spelt out by the demise of the mammoth, that time has indeed already run out for the likes of the forest elephant and that we are simply hearing the dying cries of a species in inexorable decline. But can we risk giving up now? Do we want to play a part in trying to make a difference or are we content to stand idly by as a precious few committed individuals struggle against the odds to slow the decline? Harder to join the ranks and try, but how much more rewarding if we succeed?