Elephants’ best kept secret: Natural carbon capture agents

Saturday February 12 2022
African elephants

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Tsavo National Park, Kenya. PHOTO | AFP


Among the known three species of elephants — forest, savannah and Asian — it has been found that the forest elephant faces most dangers from humans from war to logging, and mining, development and poaching.

But at a recent presentation by the Elephant Protection Initiative comprising 21 African countries, it was revealed that the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), currently listed as critically endangered (that is one step away from being listed as extinct in the wild), could be a game-changer on the economic front.

According to Ralph Chami, financial economist with the International Monitory Fund, “The carbon value of a single forest elephant to sequester carbon is worth $1.75 million. And the world is in dire need of carbon sinks.”

“The country can sell off the carbon services of these elephants to offset their (carbon producers mostly from the developed industrial countries) carbon footprint.” The money of course must reach local communities, forest rangers and researchers who are the forest stewards by virtue of their close association with the forest.

According to Chami, it’s a win-win-win situation: Nature wins because she in her indigenous rainforests, is capturing carbon; the government wins because it receives revenue from the protected areas (protected areas and national parks); and, the businesses who want to offset their carbon footprint.

Central to the health of the rainforest is the forest elephant that helps fight climate change by contributing significantly to natural carbon capture.


Mr Chami writes, “As African forest elephants make their way through the rainforests and forage for food, they thin out young trees that are competing for space, water, and light — by trampling on some and consuming others. Trees left behind … grow taller and larger … wherever forest elephants roam.”

These trees — which biologists call late-succession trees — store more carbon in their biomass. “Elephant countries can then translate the language of science into the market place. And rural economies can develop on the back of elephant conservation,” he explains.

When a poor person realises that a live elephant is worth far more than a dead one, s/he is not tempted to poach or support poachers. A live elephant’s current rate is $1.75 million compared with one killed for its tusks at $40,000, Chami adds.

However, warns Lee White, Gabon’s Minister of Environment, who is also an elephant researcher, all this is fine but one has to be careful of ‘carbon cowboys’ manipulating figures to fatten their pockets.

Conservation can be turned into a source of capital but it needs the backing of good science for the financial economists to compute the exact price – and of course the political will.

The forest elephant is much smaller than the savannah elephant, has oval-shaped ears with straighter downward pointing tusks unlike the savannah elephant’s outward curving tusks.

Of the roughly 500,000 elephants in Africa today (compared with 10 million in 1900), forest elephants number 150,000, the rest being savanna elephants. The forest elephants are in the dense forests of Nigeria, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Cameroon. The savanna elephants are in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya.