Eating trees, hunting bans, cancer clues: 3 big elephant stories you may have missed

© Jon McCormack

1. Forest elephants are our allies in the fight against climate change, research finds

Researchers have discovered a link between forest elephant eating patterns and a reduction in carbon emissions in their ecosystem.

The Story: African forest elephants need to eat 5-10 percent of their body weight (about 200-600 pounds) every day. They mostly feed on trees with lower wood density — leaving more room in the forest for the growth of high-wood-density trees that more efficiently absorb carbon in the environment, reported Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz for he Conversation. Unfortunately, this  species faces constant threats from poachers and deforestation.

The Big Picture: According to the research, if African forest elephants go extinct, above-ground biomass — the organic materials such as trees that live above soil, essential to storing carbon — would decrease by 7 percent in Central Africa's rainforests. Tropical forests can provide at least 30 percent of the mitigation needed to limit global warming, < making their protection vital not only for the elephants' diets and habitats, but for the planet.

2. How strong is Africa’s last elephant stronghold?

Botswana has lifted its strict hunting ban, putting elephants at high risk of poaching.

The Story: Once a refuge for elephants, Botswana has seen a steep spike in elephant deaths after lifting a hunting ban in place for the last five years, reported Dina Fine Maron for National Geographic. The country is home to one-third of the remaining savanna elephants in Africa, a population that is shrinking — from 2017 to 2018, 385 elephants were poached.

The Big Picture: Demand for ivory in China remains high, leading poachers to take advantage of the lifted hunting bans and kill elephants at an accelerated rate. Without stricter poaching laws, savanna elephants are at risk of extinction, which could harm the eco-tourism industries many communities — and countries — across the continent’s grasslands rely on.

3. As elephants and whales disappear, they take valuable cancer clues with them 

Elephants and whales rarely get cancer, leading scientists to believe the species could hold the key to finding a cure for humans.

The Story: In the elephant genome, there are extra copies of a gene responsible for fighting off tumors that cause cancer, reported Doug Johnson for Undark Magazine. As elephant populations dwindle due to habitat destruction and climate change, scientists race to gather data from remaining elephants in the wild.

The Big Picture: “People are smart, but nature is much smarter,” said Joshua Schiffman, a researcher from University of Utah studying cancer defenses in animals. “Nature has figured out the solutions to some of our health problems over hundreds of millions of years of evolution.” As elephants edge closer to extinction, their disappearance could have far-reaching implications for public health and cancer research.

Kiley Price is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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Cover image: Elephants in Botswana. (Jon McCormick)

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