We’ve been asked on multiple occasions what impact the elephants will have on the land; will it be deforested, will they contribute to excessive nitrogen in the soil that leeches into streams (similar to large scale commercial farms) and how will they interact with Brazil’s native wildlife?
These are all important questions, and thanks to the knowledge gained from the existing models of elephant sanctuaries, we can now respond with confidence. Almost 20 years ago I co-founded The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, at the time no one had ever offered elephants in captivity substantial space and the ability to truly live in harmony with nature. These same questions were posed then as well. We could speculate, but we had no way to prove our beliefs except to try, to take a chance on nature. Our risk paid off with a profound outcome for the elephants and the habitat they resided within, benefiting both the environment and native wildlife.
Scientists have known for years that megafauna, such as elephants, have an incredible positive impact on their habitat. In masses they can cause great devastation but in moderate, sustainable groupings, they bring an extensive benefit to the flora and fauna around them. Generally speaking, (with only rare exception) elephants are neither predator nor prey, they will not be threatened by nor will they be a threat to indigenous wildlife wherever they live. The truth is elephants bring a great benefit to other species, and many in-fact learn to reap the immediate benefits of their new neighbors. Several species learn quickly to follow close by: as the elephants kick up and disturb insects while grazing, birds are often close by to take advantage of the easy prey and when the elephants defecate, a large number of mostly undigested seeds and grain provide easy food for deer, small mammals, birds, fowl etc. These waste deposits also serve to promote new life, prompting elephants to be labeled nature’s gardeners; in captivity it is quite common to see multiple plants growing directly from their dung piles. In one instance we observed more than 20 germinations of 5 different vegetables in one bolus; softened seeds, fertilizer, heat, moisture, just add sunlight and let nature take over. Seed dispersal is another tremendous asset that elephants bring to their habitats. As constant wanderers, they can disperse seeds several miles during their 20+ hour digestive cycle. Add that they will also ingest fruits of trees that only mega fauna can break apart; the positive impact on the diversity of vegetation within their range is increased. Elephants are inefficient digesters; they only utilize 35-40% of the nutrients in their diet, leaving a substantial benefit to soil, adding key nutrients and organic matter while attracting burrowing insects that help to aerate the earth around their waste.
Last December, during our visit to Brazil, we met with Dr. Mauro Galetti, PhD with the Department of Ecology at the UNESP in Rio Claro. He has published scientific articles pertaining to the negative impact the lack of megafauna has caused on the balance of the ecosystem throughout the Brazilian Cerrado (savannah) and Pantanal (extensive flood plain/wetlands region.) Among several key facts he includes that the lack of large herbivores increases the volume of untouched grasses. During the dry season this matter then turns to dry fuel that can greatly impact the extent and magnitude of commonly occurring brush fires, caused by man and nature (such as lightening strikes). Dr. Galetti also discusses the tremendous impact on seed dispersal; without large herbivores the seeds of many species of fruits are no longer consumed and spread to other regions, having a direct negative impact on the entire food chain and ecosystem. Some state that this is the natural order of evolution but there is documentation that suggests that humans, using fires to hunt and isolate their prey, have grossly impacted the natural evolution of the regions ecology. These actions have promoted deforestation, allowing for the introduction of non-native plant species, and directly contributed to the extinction of mega fauna in South America. Humans, in an attempt to right some of our negative influence, are looking for solutions to positively impact nature and to help reestablish a balance. One suggested method to potentially mitigate devastating fires and add nutrients to the soil is to conduct controlled burns. Another suggestion, and obviously a more unique, complex and controversial solution is to introduce megafauna back into the Cerrado and savannahs to recreate the ecosystem and balance that humans helped to destroy. I am not arguing either option, but the latter suggestion points to the incredible benefit that elephants can have on the environment they live within. We plan to work with Dr. Galetti, his students, and colleagues to document and monitor the impact the elephants bring to their new home. Although it will take a few years before any viable data is collected, we are interested and anxious to see and document the positive shifts that we all believe will occur.
Seed Dispersal made Simple (video created by Elephant Reintroduction Foundation):
It is vital to remember that sanctuary is a fully enclosed space; we are not releasing elephants into the wilds of Brazil, (introduction of non-indigenous species rarely works well – our world’s ecosystem and the balance of nature is too complex for us to truly comprehend and recreate.) We know what undeniable benefits sanctuary can bring to the social, emotional, psychological and physical health of captive elephants, yet sanctuary is still captivity and all elements of sanctuary need to be monitored and managed for the resident elephants, their habitat, and the surrounding environment. We can’t recreate their true home, we can’t give them back the lives that they would have had if they were left with their wild families, but we owe it to them to do all we can to provide a life that is rich, peaceful, and healing.
If you would like to learn more about the seed dispersal of megafauna, follow this link.