Elephants are everywhere! Not really, in fact they are becoming increasingly rare, but at times it seems as if, everywhere you turn, you will come across the image of an elephant. While almost every school child on any continent can tell you what an elephant looks like - that they have big ears and a long nose, that their skin is gray and wrinkled - a significant number of those children have never seen an elephant in the flesh! Yet they still can describe an elephant in great detail, and will share that information with you at the drop of a hat.
While elephants are popular characters in children's literature and film, they play an important cultural role for adults as well. Throughout the world, elephants are widely regarded as symbols of great power and strength: they are credited with possessing vast intellect, deep emotional capacity, and comprehensive powers of recall. Where the Hindu religion is practiced, Ganesh, a half-elephant half-human figure with a striking resemblance to a Buddha with an elephant's head, is worshipped as the Overcomer of Obstacles. In that role, Ganesh is frequently called upon by followers of the Hindu faith in times of great need.
Without question, elephants deserve our admiration and respect. With the exception ofadult males, elephants typically live in a matriarchal kinship-based social group that operates in accordance with an elaborate code of conduct. These social groups focus on the youngest members, particularly very young calves, and quickly come to the aid of any that have managed to get themselves into a difficult situation. Elephants exhibit a special sort of affection towards those they recognize as social peers, and have been observed to show tremendous excitement when reunited with familiar companions after a period of separation, as well as signs of a sense of profound loss as the passing of a member of their social group. Not only are they capable of deceit as well as complex reasoning, elephants are frequently observed engaging in various forms of altruistic behavior, putting their own well-being at risk in order to provide for the well-being of another member of their group.
Any and all of these traits may have played a role in motivating people to bestow a special status upon elephants, particularly in parts of Asia, and that special status has in turn been the foundation for the survival of elephants in Asia into the modern age. Unfortunately, as pressure mounts and natural resources are increasingly taxed to provide for a rapidly growing human population, wildlife often gets pushed aside and wild places suffer. Increasingly, elephants are no longer beinggranted an exception. Out of what they see as necessity, people who live in the presence of free-ranging elephantsare increasingly questioning if those elephants are a luxury the world can afford to keep. With equal validity, the answer to that question is that elephants may very well be more ofa necessity than a luxury, and if we don't continue to provide a place for elephants, we could be putting our own future at risk.
Elephants are recognized as a keystone species, meaning that, much like the keystone in a rock wall, they are an important component in the ecosystems they occupy. If a keystone species were to disappear, the ecosystems they support may begin to collapse. For example, elephants have the ability to detect the presence of water underground as a result of their impressive sense of smell. In times of drought, elephants will often go to a dry riverbed orsimilar area, dig into the ground to obtain the water they sense below the surface, and in the process create an opportunity for other animals to gain access to water as well. In the process of feeding, elephants may clear away trees, converting what once was forest into grasslands. Simultaneously, elephants are contributing to the establishment of new forests by consuming the seeds of those trees, traveling a distance away from where the seeds were initially consumed, and subsequently depositing them in a new location. In fact, for some species of plants, passage through an elephant's digestive tract is essential before their seeds can germinate. A significant number of plants that grow where elephants range have developed a very special way of insuring that, even though individual plants might be eaten by herbivores, as a species they will survive. With time and the power of natural selection, these plants have developed seeds with very thick hulls, which make it difficult for most animals to feed upon their seeds. At the same time, these very thick hulls make it difficult for the seeds to germinate without some sort of assistance from nature. Elephants possess both a huge appetite and a rather inefficient digestive system. In the process of feeding, they will consume large quantities of vegetation, including branches, leaves and seeds. The material they consume will take hours to pass through an elephant's digestive tract, and in the case of seeds with a very thick hull, emerge almost intact, thanks to that inefficient digestive process. While the seeds may appear to be intact, the shell actually has been weakened as it traveled through an elephant. At the end of this process, the likelihood of successfully germinating has been enhanced not only by the weakening of the hull, but by the fact that now, the seed has been conveniently packaged in a very rich mound of fertilizer!
These are just two of the ways in which elephants have earned their designation as a keystone species. In regards to plants that have evolved strategies that are dependent on elephants to be effective, if elephants were no longer available to consume these plants and increase the probability that their seeds will germinate, those plants could also disappear. If those plants were to disappear, the other wildlife species that depend on them for survival would also be at risk, and the end result would be an extinction cascade of sorts, a cascade that would, in all likelihood, impact our own survival as well - in what scenario does it make sense for us to allow that to happen?
-Authored by Harry Peachey