Why Are Elephants Important in Nature?

Apart from being intelligent, gentle, and social giants, elephants play a critical role in their natural habitats helping to engineer the environment.

Sep 27, 2023By Andrew Olsen
why are elephants important in nature

Elephants are known as nature’s engineers, and while elephants certainly cannot build bridges, they still play an essential role in sculpting their natural habitat. Elephants are found in Africa and across Asia and help nature thrive in some unexpected ways: apart from reengineering their natural habitat, they also help spread seeds and offer local communities the opportunity to be directly financially compensated when they protect the elephants. Local communities living in harmony with elephants have a symbiotic relationship with the gentle giants and benefit from their ‘natural gardening.’

Elephants are Nature’s Engineers

elephant herd
Photo credit: Yauyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Our modern elephants are the closest living relative of the woolly mammoth. Still, there are some key differences between them too. Although both species have had prolonged interactions with humankind, mammoths are now extinct. However, their cousin, the elephant, is still around and plays an essential role in their natural surroundings. But what exactly do elephants do that helps nature?

Here are a few things elephants are good at:

  • They fell and break trees as they travel through the forests and other landscapes, opening pathways for other animals to travel along. Although we may see this behavior as destructive, it opens up vegetation. It allows new plants a space to grow and grasslands to thrive. In Africa, species like zebra, wildebeest, and buffalo benefit from the regenerated grasslands, and they, in turn, feed carnivores such as lions, leopards, and cheetahs. After African elephants, Asian elephants are the largest land mammals in forests. Again, the elephants open pathways for other forest animals and allow fodder to grow for smaller animals.
  • In times of drought, elephants stomp and dig for water in dry riverbeds and create pools where other animals can also find water.

Elephants Are Natural Seed Dispersers

indian elephant
Photo credit: Ahammed Sha / Pixabay

Elephants graze almost 18 hours a day and travel long distances to reach food (up to 30 miles / 48 km). They also produce large amounts of dung (up to 250 pounds (113 kg) per elephant). Their excrement contains digested organic matter and seeds. The organic matter provides a natural compost for the seeds to sprout and grow new plants and trees. More new trees and plants mean the ecosystem can sustain more animal life, and the circle of life continues.

In the rainforests of Asia, the four species of elephants consume between 150 and 200 varieties of berries, bark, leaves, and roots. While the females do not have tusks, the males do and use their tusks to rummage and till the soil allowing air circulation into the ground and spreading seeds. Trees are natural air purifiers and trap carbon dioxide, play a vital role in the evaporation cycle in jungles that produce rainwater for animals to drink, and replenish natural streams and underground aquifers. Without the help of elephants, new plants and trees won’t have the opportunity to grow as quickly.

Ethical Tourism Attracts Tourists and Money

Young elephant bull kenya
Photo credit: Reteti Elephant Sanctuary

Sustainable safari practices and wildlife tourism can benefit elephants and local populations. In Kenya, the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary is owned and operated by the local community. Orphaned elephants are saved by the community and returned to the wild. While the community benefits from the revenue that allows them to improve their homes and send their children to school, the elephant population also stays healthy. Releasing healthy elephants into the ecosystem ensures they can continue their essential work. This symbiotic relationship between the elephants and humans shows that humans and elephants can live in harmony.

When logging using elephants was outlawed in Thailand in 1989, they had a problem with domesticated elephants being released in a populous country of around 67 million people. Human and elephant conflicts were a significant concern. Sanctuaries like Phan Nga Elephant Park saw the problem. Instead, they created a refuge where their domesticated elephants could educate tourists about the elephants while ethically caring for them. The elephants are still ‘employed’ without the owners losing their income.

elephants in river
Photo credit: Phan Nga Elephant Park

During its lifetime, an elephant can generate around $1.6 million through tourism. Botswana, one of southern Africa’s most prosperous countries, derives about 10% of its annual GDP from tourism. This figure has grown over time as Botswana has strengthened the protection of its elephants. Local communities also benefit from tourists visiting the country, and the elephants can continue their essential job of natural landscaping.

Increased Security for Local Communities

elephant twins kenya
Photo credit: AFP

Unfortunately, poaching and wildlife tracking has a devastating effect not only on the wildlife but also on the local villages. While the local communities live in peace with nature, poachers can shoot, kill, or rob local villagers. Luckily, at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, wildlife rangers are credentialed as police reservists who respond to wildlife and non-wildlife crimes in the area. They help protect the elephants, other wildlife species, and the local villagers.

How Can You Help the Elephants?

elepant newborn and mother
Photo credit: Amy Attenborough

Here are some ways you can help the elephants:

  • Book ethical and sustainable safaris such as the ones we’ve listed above. Refrain from visiting tourist attractions where elephants are used for human entertainment, such as elephant rides, elephants ‘playing’ soccer, or anything that doesn’t benefit an elephant’s natural behavior or habitat.
  • Virtually adopt an elephant at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary or donate to help them feed the baby elephant orphans.
  • Support your local wildlife charity branch, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) or the African Conservation Foundation (ACF), financially or become a volunteer.
  • Eat less meat and avoid products made from palm oil because forests are cleared to meet the demand for cattle grazing and palm oil plantations, which negatively impacts the elephants’ natural habitat.
  • Don’t buy ivory products — antique, vintage, or modern.
Andrew Olsen
By Andrew Olsen

Andrew is a proud cat dad of three spoiled cats, Schopenhauer, Poppy, and Empress Sisi. Growing up with various pets instilled a lifelong love for animals in him. His work in environmental management, particularly water governance, gave him first-hand experience with the delicate balance between humans and animals — domestic and wild. His favorite hobbies include browsing and buying cat toys, gardening, growing fresh catnip for his cats, drinking tea, and reading with a cat on his lap.