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Imagining A World Without Elephants

<p><em>Ben Guarino</em></p>

A poacher's bullet kills more than elephants - an elephant's death ricochets through the ecosystem, affecting everything from other animals to the vegetation where the pachyderms roam.

When elephants are poached, "the entire ecosystem is at risk," said Trevor Caughlin, a University of Florida ecologist, in a press release. Caughlin and his colleagues recently discovered that a lack of elephants in Thailand puts certain tree species at risk of extinction. "My hope for this study is that it will provide a boost for those trying to curb overhunting and provide incentives to stop the wildlife trade."

Elephants are capable of eating fruits and seeds that other animals can't digest. Migratory elephants, moreover, deposit digested tree seeds much farther away than they could otherwise travel, increasing the chances that a seed can take root.

Elephants do more than pass seeds throughout the environment - they uproot trees, too. And though this may, on the surface, seem counterproductive for a healthy ecosystem, fallen trees aren't always a drag - they provide shelter. Lizards, for example, find tumbles of logs and branches inviting, and they were more diverse in places where African elephants had damaged trees compared with unscathed spots, a 2009 study found.

To curb desertification - the transformation of grassland or forest into desert - ecologist Allan Savory killed 40,000 elephants, believing they were eating the grassland into desert (it wasn't illegal at the time). But Savory realized the error of his ways when the rate of desert growth didn't slow. "I will carry that blunder to my grave," he said in a 2013 TED talk. Now, Savory believes, grazing actually promotes the spread of grassland, exchanging nutrients through a cycle of consumption, defecation and regrowth.

"We knew hunting was bad, but we were not sure why it was bad, and therefore could not predict the long-term impacts," botanist Richard Corlett said in a statement accompanying Caughlin's study. "Now we know it is really, really bad and will get worse. The message that ‘guns kill trees too' should help put overhunting at the top of the conservation agenda, where it deserves to be."