Elephant in Kruger National Park.
Credit: Peter Guilliatt/Flickr

When I think of elephants, big, friendly giants come to mind. This said, I would much rather prefer to enjoy the friendly giants, weighing up to 16,500 pounds and standing close to 13 feet tall, with the comfort of a fence between us. New studies show, though, that it is trees that need to worry about the destruction an elephant can do.

As stated by the Conservation Ecology Research Unit, elephants are known for their ability to uproot, debark and break branches of many savanna trees. Scientists have known the destructive nature elephants play in toppling trees in order to reach leaves growing on top branches, but it has not been until recently that they have been able to quantify the number of trees African elephants have taken down.

New technologies have allowed scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Science to determine tree loss from elephants on the savannas of Kruger National Park in South Africa. Greg Asner of Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology and his team used a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) model mounted to their Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), a flying device, to monitor the growth and height of trees in the savannas. This technology provides detailed 3-D imagery of the vegetation canopy using laser pulses as the model flies above the African savanna.

The studies showed that elephants are the primary culprits of trees destruction in the savannas in Kruger National Park: “Their browsing habitats knock trees over at a rate averaging six times higher than in areas inaccessible to them,” says the report. For two years, the scientists studied 58,000 trees and found that elephants were responsible for almost 20 percent of downed trees. The team studied other environmental factors, such as other herbivores and fire, but came to the conclusion that elephants were the major factor to blame in tree loss.

Elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Credit: Artem/Flickr

Also in the report, Greg Asner states how this information could be useful in managing the land in the future saying, “The elephant-driven tree losses have a ripple effect across the ecosystem, including how much carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere.” Elephants toppling trees is a natural occurrence and will continue to impact the abundance and growth of savanna trees in the future. These new studies will give park and government officials insight into what regions are being most affected and how to better manage the trees and protect them from elephants.