Elephants Are Eating the Forests!

Somewhere in this is a Dr. Seuss joke. Scientists at South Africa’s Kruger National Park for years have been mystified by the loss of trees and vegetation in the park, blaming everything from rabbits to wildfires. Finally, following some controlled experiments, they were able to determine that elephants were causing all the unwanted destruction. Discovery News reports on the study that found tree loss in park areas with elephant populations is up to six times greater than in parts of the park without elephants. The article even presents a neat video of an elephant being an elephant and knocking over a tree.

The article had this to say about the problems presented by the elephants:

The discovery presents a tough issue: Trees provide food, shelter, shade and more for numerous other species. But elephants are just doing what comes naturally to survive. “Save an Elephant, Kill a Tree” isn’t exactly a catchy conservation phrase.

“Save an Elephant, Kill a Tree?” Some have suggested the opposite approach: “Save the Forests, Kill the Elephants.” What interests me however is this single sentence in the article:

Humans have essentially engineered the problem by relocating, either directly or indirectly, pachyderm populations.

It seems saving elephants and trees might have a different solution: If humans are the agent behind this problem, shouldn’t we deserve more focus in the article? Our role in this mess deserves some examination, even if cursory (it’s a short article after all). Wildlife populations are adapted to specific environments; likewise, these widlife-environment relationships exist in a sort of ecological balance. It appears that we have relocated elephants into areas that are ecologically unsuited to their behavior. This is the problem, as well as the lesson. Relationships in nature are extremely complex and rarely fully understood. Chalking a line across the landscape and calling it a national park is a beautiful idea; to believe that a park can become a refuge for displaced species is not accurate. It seems we may be learning this lesson, at least at Kruger Naional Park.


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