The current status of the world’s elephants has become incredibly dire. Between poaching, the tourism industry and habitat loss, both Asian and African elephants are in danger of becoming extinct within our own lifetimes.

It is estimated that up to 50,000 African elephants are killed by poachers every year to meet the demands of the ivory trade. Despite this staggering statistic, many people do not even realize that the ivory trade contributes to elephant deaths. A poll of Chinese citizens found that around 70 percent of the population did not know that poachers had to kill elephants for their tusks, thinking they just fall out like a tooth would. This may seem like a silly misconception, but China is the world’s leading market for ivory, illustrating the danger of this myth.

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The tourism industry is a large threat to the Asian elephant. Taking elephants from the wild when they are young and beating them until they learn tricks and follow instructions, elephant trekking and painting camps convince tourists that their efforts are in the interest of conservation. However, as we have learned, elephants who are forced into the industry are abused and exploited solely for profit and “entertainment” – never released back into the wild.

While the loss of the elephant would be devastating in and of itself, it is becoming clear that the impact it would have on their ecosystems would equally disastrous.

When Elephants Go, So Do Trees

A recent study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society Bfound that there is a stark correlation between lower elephant populations and less trees. Elephants are regarded as the architects of their environments for their ability to influence the local vegetation. In fact is has been said that after humans, elephants have the largest ability to influence their natural environments.

The findings of the Proceedings study show that the trees that are popularly found in traditional elephant habitats have become reliant on these animals for seed dispersal. According to researcher, Trevor Caughlin, trees produce millions of seeds and only one of them needs to successfully make it into the ground for a new sapling to grow. But, researchers found that the method of dispersal played a great role not only in the chances that this would occur, but also the future health of the tree. Looking at tree data from an area in Thailand where elephant populations used to number in the 100,000s, and have now been reduced down to around 2,000, it became apparent that trees planted via elephant-mediated dispersal have a much better shot at survival.

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What is most troubling about the researcher’s findings is that in areas where elephants are becoming extinct, so are local species of trees. So, in a nutshell … if the elephants are going extinct, they’re going to take the trees with them.

What This Means for Humans

Trees play a vital role in preventing soil erosion. In areas that are prone to either flooding or drought, trees help to lock the soil in place, basically holding the entire habitat in place. When soil runs into rivers it can cause them to dry up – meaning the loss of major water supplies and also homes and croplands.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations even goes as far as to assert that soil erosion in and of itself can destroy an entire civilization. The survival of the elephant is precarious, but the survival of the one billion people who live in regions that are already threatened by water scarcity and degrading environmental conditions from soil erosion will also be put at high risk.

What You Can Do

A healthy elephant population means a healthy environment which in turn benefits people. The ivory trade and tourism industry may be highly profitable endeavors, but it is clear that what they cost to the environment hardly makes them worth the pay off.

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The resilience of an ecosystem relies on the delicate balance of all species. By removing the elephant from the equation for our personal gains, we are ultimately tipping the balance away from our own favor. Now that the direct correlation between the elephant and forests has been drawn, conservationists hope to spread the message that “guns kill trees too.”

You can help to end this vicious cycle by spreading the truth about the ivory trade and elephant tourism. We need to keep elephants alive and in their native habitats in order to protect the future of the world’s ecosystem. When we endanger the elephant, we ultimately are endangering ourselves, so it is time we started acting like it.

Image source: Andy Withers/Flickr

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