Sunday, July 18, 2021

Save the Elephants! Maybe

African elephants are the flagship “charismatic megafauna” of conservation fundraising efforts, perhaps second only to giant pandas. The efforts to save the elephant have included confining them in wildlife reserves and protecting them.

But even well-intentioned human efforts often backfire. By crowding them into wildlife reserves, we have created high population densities for the elephants. Each elephant can run over, chew up, and kill 1500 acacia trees. When confined in a small area, elephants can devastate the acacia trees—upon which they depend for survival. And protecting them from hunting makes these dense populations grow even larger.

The acacias also depend on the elephants. Weevils infest acacia seed pods and can kill practically every seed in them. But if an elephant eats the pods before the weevil grubs hatch, the grubs die and the seeds survive, to sprout on a nutritious dung heap once the elephant is finished with them. But acacias cannot benefit from this vital service of the elephants unless there are not too many elephants.

My point is simple: once we mess up the natural balance, it is very difficult to figure out what to do next.

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