Elephants, engineers of the forest

October 2012

Who dunnit?  Which animals are responsible for planting seeds throughout the forest?

Who dunnit? Which animals are responsible for planting seeds throughout the forest?

My next stop is the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus, where I meet my colleague and friend Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz.  A Spanish transplant in Malaysia, Ahimsa has spent the past year with great gusto setting up MEME (Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants).  I recognize the energy, it’s the same enthusiasm shared by Benoit and George, my current supervisor. What all these people have in common is a firm belief in what they do, a single-minded determination that appears never to falter. Truly something to behold.

Ahimsa studies the fascinating topic of seed dispersal by large mammals. In south East Asia, with its multitude of delicious fruits, there is much to be learned. He generously brings me to one of his field sites up north, close to the border of Thailand.  The field station is staffed by several enthusiastic students and collaborating researchers, one of whom is another colleague from Sri Lanka.

One of a series of wells excavated and visited by elephants.

One of a series of wells excavated and visited by elephants.

A frog and some eggs in a well dug by elephants.

A frog and some eggs in a well dug by elephants.

Our first day involves another boat ride across a massive man-made reservoir, then a short pleasant hike through what appears to be rich tropical forest. In fact it is a selectively logged forest containing a rare rsource – mineral licks.  The elephants here excavate wells and cavernous holes along some steep slopes. Elephants and other animals drink water and eat clay from these deposits in order to get nutrients lacking in their plant-based diets.


A seedling sprouting out of elephant dung.

Ahimsa’s team has set up a series of camera traps, which are triggered by movement.  The cameras capture elephants and other animals, as well as tourists and other visitors to the licks.  In the wells themselves, we spot a multitude of little dots floating – frog eggs. Peering up from the murky water is the culprit herself.

Another version of eden.

Another version of Eden.

Ahimsa and his colleagues are showing how the vast ecological web is so thoroughly connected – large mammals like elephants and rhinoceros play roles that almost no other animals do. More than charismatic species, they are architects of their environments – or, as Ahimsa likes to say, “ecosystem engineers”. By distributing seeds, modifying vegetation, digging up soil, and a myriad other little impacts, they alter the very structure of the forest. In their wake they create microhabitats for the smaller, more humble denizens of this system.  Remove these species, and the effects will cascade up and down all of these levels.  With elephants and rhinos practically extinct in many parts of Asia, what will the future forests look like? How many unseen, unacknowledged species may also now be tipping like dominoes? Ahimsa has his work cut out for him, it’s a race against time to save the forests and forest species before plantations and development schemes envelop these beautiful reservoirs of biodiversity. We must remember, too, that these forests will be closely tied to the fates of own future generations.


About asianelephant

Promoting understanding of Asian elephant behavior, evidence-based conservation, and the coexistence of people with wildlife and wilderness.
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