“There is nothing that reduces us to our proper dimensions more rapidly and completely than spending long periods in the company of elephants.” Mitch Reardon, Shaping Kruger
Everyone that has experienced the captivating minutes – maybe even hours – with a herd of elephants can surely agree that there is something special about them. Whether it is their social connections or the process in which they make such thoughtful and wise decisions with each movement they take.
Its easy to humanise elephants as they have such similar traits to us, or perhaps traits we wish we have.
Elephants have a well-developed temporal lobe that gives them the ability to be self-aware and to have empathy for others. They have an enlarged cerebral cortex that is responsible for memory and the power of recognition. Their memory is what holds their complex society together. An elephant can remember up to 200 individuals, some of which it might hardly ever see.
I have once been in between two different herds that had congregated around a waterhole and watched how they greeted each other as if they were long lost friends; you could feel their excited energy.
When the grass is brown and the leaves are gone, and the waterholes become wrinkly, cracked mud pits, the dominant female (the matriarch) uses her stored knowledge of ancient routes she traveled when she was a young calf learning from her matriarch to now lead her herd to greener pastures and flowing water. The path will lead her family to seasonally fruiting trees, following paths compacted by many feet over the years.
Not only are elephants admirable creatures, but they have a responsibility to uphold: they play a complex role in the Savannah ecosystems. These megaherbivore (plant eaters that exceed 1000kgs in weight) are prime examples of species upon which many other species in an ecosystem depend.
Elephant impact on vegetation is as enormous as them; they have the ability to change an environment more than any other creature.
Fire, rain and elephants help mould the Savannah biome, killing off trees by either ring-barking them (stripping the bark to get to the nutritious cambium layer) or simply pushing them over, giving the grass layer a chance to survive and keeping the woody cover at bay.
Elephants destroy trees, but they also aid in their dispersal.
They produce around 100kg of dung daily which tucks away dung beetle eggs and other insects, but eating so much means that they often have to travel big distances to access enough food, and as they move they spread the semi-digested food in their manure, fulfilling a phenomenal seed disperser role.
As the elephants move along pushing down trees to feed on the roots and hard to reach leaves, they are opening thickets and feeding on the tall grass in a process called facilitation (where by one species can forms a niche for another species). Most of the pushed over trees catch seeds and hold the soils nutrients below it, which then allows small plants and grass to grow, creating a micro-ecosystem for small rodents, spiders and other smaller species to live in.
The elephants’ role as a habitat modifier changes tall grass into new shoots that attract buffalo and zebra. These species then trim the grass down further bringing in the wildebeest and zebra. Ultimately, an entire cycle can be controlled by elephants as the keystone species.
As important a role as they play, more and more questions are being asked about the solutions to the potential overpopulation… At the moment, things look rosy, but in 50 years, who knows where we’ll be…