West Africa’s tropical forests play an important role in acting as carbon sinks through the absorption of carbon dioxide, moderating climate and acting as a major source of moisture whereby water evaporating from trees falls as rain, sometimes many miles away from the forests themselves. Within these Congo Basin rainforests, the forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis, plays a very important role. Collectively, these shy forest pachyderms are one of the largest proponents in maintaining the overall diversity of tree species.
Their impact can be briefly summarised as follows: These elephants eat all kinds of fruit – in the process digesting and excreting the seeds. These dispersed seeds germinate on the forest floor, ultimately growing into trees. It is also known that without forest elephants certain Congo forest plant species would not even be able to germinate unless they have passed through the gut (digestive tract) of an elephant. On a larger scale, the incredibly biodiverse tree species create the microclimate of the rainforests which in turn impacts or dictates regional climate in terms of temperature and overall rainfall.
Unique within Congo’s rainforests are bais – essentially forest clearings, usually found along rivers and rich in mineral salts, the latter important nutrients for all forest wildlife. These elephants, further to seed dispersal, also play a critical role in keeping these bais open and in recycling these nutrients to the surface of the bais so that they can be accessed by other species. A number of forest trails (called elephant boulevards) are also created and maintained by elephant as they move between preferred feeding areas and bais, and these are also again utilised by many game and bird species as they traverse different areas of forest and open savannah.
An estimated 10,000 forest elephant still reside in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo. Compared to savannah elephants, they are smaller, with more oval-shaped ears, and their straighter tusks point downwards.
Martin Benadie © 2014