An elephant in the room

Anyone who has seen the most recent issue of National Geographic will understand why I chose this topic. The cover article looked at the resurgence in poaching for the ivory trade, and the journalist talked to a wide variety of people involved in the illegal trade to provide an understanding of what is driving demand. I found it depressing to learn that poaching of elephants was on the rise again- I thought we had been making progress there.

I find it very worrying that demand for ivory continues to put elephants at risk- if we can’t protect animals as charismatic as elephants from poaching, how we possibly be effective in protecting less popular animals? And I do realize the economic element of poaching- if you had to choose between feeding your family and saving a wild animal, which would you choose? But there must be a way to keep elephants from becoming extinct in the wild because of human hunger for ivory.

This got me thinking about what might happen if elephants are poached to extinction in an area- aside from losing income, how would that impact the poachers’ lives? Would there be changes to the environment around them? So this month I’m going to investigate the ecological roles of large herbivores, particularly elephants, to better understand what an elephant-less ecosystem might be like.  I have heard that elephants alter landscapes by pulling up trees, and I’m sure that they have other impacts as well. Maybe protecting elephants can also be about protecting livelihoods.

I’m not going to provide a history of the ivory trade and poaching, partly because it would depress me quite a bit and partly because I imagine that you already have some background knowledge there. Instead I’m going to focus on how elephants alter and/or maintain their environment, and how that impacts human society. I’d also like to expand some of my search to other large herbivores- we may not all live near elephants, but there may be other animals in our backyards that fill similar roles. If there is an aspect of elephant ecological roles that is interesting to you, send me an e-mail and I’ll see what I can dig up.

So stay tuned as I explore what a several-ton animal does with its time.

Posted October 3, 2012 by Mirka Zapletal in Mammals

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