Surviving the Century: Elephants

13 November 2012

Elephant by gmacfadyen, on Flickr

On 21 November, Surviving the Century at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) asks how dependent human health is on the health of the animal populations around us. Four speakers will each put the case for an animal species that we simply can’t survive without. Here Susan Canney puts the case for elephants. What do you think? Add your comments at the bottom.

Once thought of as a conservation luxury, we are now beginning to glimpse how elephants and other megafauna are fundamental to healthy ecosystems and human wellbeing. Elephants are not just a species but one of the forces that shape ecosystems, and nurture the wealth of species that sustain ecosystem function and our own livelihoods.

Their large size, for example, means they can do things that other species cannot, such as providing water by excavating pools and digging wells in dry riverbeds. They are the great ecosystem gardeners, cultivating the diversity of their surroundings and thereby providing for different plant and animal lifestyles. They coppice trees to encourage new growth that is more palatable, nutritious and accessible for themselves and others. By preventing a few species from dominating, they create a varied landscape of diverse species, breaking open impenetrable thicket to allow grass and other plants to establish, and the animals that depend on them, such as grazing herds.

Like good gardeners they fertilize the soil: as much as 80 percent of what elephants consume is barely digested but returned to the soil as highly fertile manure.

 As well as shaking down inaccessible fruits from the canopy, elephants help fill the forest with fruit for others. Elephants eat large amounts of fruit, and the seeds pass through their gut and are often expelled tens of kilometres down the road in a grow-bag of dung. Without such long-distance dispersal, the fruits fall and are unable to survive in the shade of the mother tree. Climate change will require many plant species to shift their range by up to several hundreds of kilometres towards the poles within a few decades – long-distance dispersal will be critical for such shifts through fragmented, human landscapes


Fruit is a rare and valuable food but difficult to find. Elephants are thought to enhance their impact by remembering where and when fruits are likely to be available, in the same way as they remember where to find water during dry spells. Many plant species depend on being eaten by elephants for their reproduction, and if elephants go, so do they. This impact extends globally as recent research suggests that many of the best trees for carbon storage rely on dispersal by large animals: the loss of the megafauna reduces the tropical forest carbon sink.

However, human health, success and wellbeing require more than food and resources. Elephants are of critical psychological importance, and we cannot fail to be touched by their sophisticated social structure, their care for each other, the delight in individual interactions, the way they mourn their dead, their ingenuity in solving problems, and the dilemmas raised in assuring their future. More like us than we ever imagined, they teach us about ourselves and our relationship to others. They hold up a mirror connecting us – recently evolved humans – to our wild ancestry in the web of life, from which we have evolved and on which we depend. This is something we often forget and yet is a vital underpinning of the shift in consciousness required to live in harmony with our planet.

Protecting megafauna, such as elephants, because we like them is often regarded as a purely ethical motivation, but it is also profoundly practical. Saving elephants requires protecting large areas of intact habitat and so protects other species and the complexity of their interconnections, which create ecosystem health and integrity in ways we are largely unaware of.

Without elephants and megafauna as guardians of diversity, ecosystems are simpler and therefore less able to provide food, water, medicines and resources; less able to control climate and disease; less able to recycle nutrients; less able to buffer and recover from environmental and human-induced impacts; less able to support human life, health and wellbeing. Nature provides all this for free. Its destruction means we are the poorer, or need to substitute with costly human infrastructure, often powered by fossil fuels.

As summarized in the words of a Malian villager, “if the elephants disappear, it means the environment is no longer good for us”.

Susan Canney has worked on a variety of nature conservation projects in Africa, Asia and Europe, and as a research officer at the Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding. She currently runs The WILD Foundation’s Mali Elephant Project and is a research associate of Oxford University’s Zoology Department, interested in using systems perspectives and collaborative approaches to understand the human–nature relationship and find sustainable solutions to conservation problems.

Noah’s Ark is a collaboration between Welcome Collection and ZSL. Book tickets for Surviving the Century online on the ZSL website.