What is the importance of elephants in the natural ecosystem?

Elephants are the largest land mammals, and also a keystone species, meaning they play a crucial role in keeping the natural ecosystem balanced. Despite such a significant function, the numbers of Aafrican elephants dwindled over the last few centuries due to European colonisation, poaching, and habitat loss. Now the species faces an additional challenge – drought. This climate change-induced drought in Africa can also affect more than one generation of these gentle giants. How? Come, let’s find out.

Droughts in most African regions have become longer and more acute. Some have lasted for over two decades. And this can affect elephant populations in more ways than one. “Heat accumulates through an elephant’s natural metabolism and physical activity, as well as being absorbed from the environment.” But they cannot sweat it off the way humans do because they lack sweat glands. Further, their thick skin slows loss of heat. This is where water comes in; it helps regulate the animal’s body temperature and keep it cool. Not just drinking, even swimming and spraying their skin with mud and water cools them down.

Without water, elephants can experience high internal temperatures, which “can disrupt the function of cells, tissues and organs such as the liver and cause them to become sick and die”.

Importantly, drought “can also reduce the availability of food, causing elephants to starve. It can also mean young elephants die or don’t develop properly, because their parched mothers produce less milk”. This is to say, longer-lasting droughts can affect the next generation or even prevent the very existence of that generation.

The creation of artificial water sources for elephants could lead to denial of water to humans and also ecosystem damage due to animal congregation at a specific spot. So, the answer to saving the elephants could be in creating or restoring wildlife corridors.

Traditionally, these animals moved to other places in search of water during droughts. But this has been affected due to fences, fragmented habitats, etc.

Conservationists stress the need for finding such solutions. Because, if we don’t find solutions, and quickly, at that, we risk losing not just this majestic beast but also so many other species that depend on it for their survival.

Picture Credit : Google 

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