The secret life of elephants: ecological engineers and agricultural pests

As a Kiwi, when I hear the word ‘pest’ my mind instantly goes to possums, stoats, rats and cats. These are some of the invasive mammals which are killing so many of our native species, most of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. These lethal pests have turned us into killers as well; we promote and stand by numerous lethal methods for pest management, without batting an eyelid. Whilst some are made uneasy by the thought of trapping, poisoning or hunting these creatures, we still employ these measures as second nature.

When talking about pest management in the past, I never quite understood the shock or disapproval from visitors from overseas. They get a certain look on their faces when they hear what we do to these mammals, many of which they are trying to protect at home. It seems to them that we have become somewhat apathetic to the lives of these creatures and accustomed to having blood on our hands in the name of pest management.

The way that I look at it, along with many other New Zealanders, is that I feel a strong sense of responsibility for protecting our native birds, lizards and plants. I do accept that these pests are simply trying to survive, on an island archipelago that they didn’t choose to live on.

Some parts of the world, have a much larger agricultural pest issue: elephants. Hearing this, helped me to understand what others feel when we talk about pests in New Zealand. How can an elephant, such a majestic creature, be considered a pest?

Of course, an agricultural pest differs in definition to the introduced conservation pests that we have in New Zealand, although reactions to these pests seem to be the same. In retaliation to the damage caused to local livelihoods or personal safety, some people have been reported to purposefully remove native elephant habitats or even employ lethal methods to control the “problem elephants”. I am now the one in shock, although in the grand scheme of things it’s not so dissimilar to our pest control strategies.

Abel Mamboleo, as part of his PhD research at Lincoln University, asked the question, published in the Journal of Biodiversity & Endangered Species, of whether elephants were really the most disastrous agricultural pest animals or are they actually the agents of ecological restoration. He reviewed multiple studies and publications to obtain crucial information about elephants, agricultural pests and ecological restoration. All of this helped guide him towards the answer to this big question: are elephants a pest or an ecological blessing? He also wanted to summarise the existing knowledge to help both conservationists and local people create appropriate plans for sustainable management.

Indian elephant bull in musth in Bandipur National Park/ CC-BY-SA 3.0 Yathin S Krishnappa.

Human-elephant conflicts arise through any interactions between our two species that have negative impacts on social, economic or cultural life, on elephants, or on the environment. The most common feature of these interactions is crop-raiding. As human populations increase, our demand for land, water and food also increases. Consequently, historical elephant habitat is being infiltrated by human activities through agricultural development, limiting elephant habitats to small “ecological islands”. This means their usual dispersal routes are restricted and the competition for resources with humans increases.

So, what happens when the natural habitat and resources of elephants are taken away? They search for food elsewhere, with the most abundant source being crops on surrounding farms. Elephants actually prefer agricultural crops to wild plants because they are more palatable, nutritious and readily available. For this reason, local people have labelled elephants as the most disastrous agricultural pests, because of the damage from elephants that they sustain. But is this a fair statement?

Elephants were compared to the criteria an animal must fit to be considered a pest. These criteria include any animal that feeds on crops, damages buildings or stored food, injures people and kills livestock. When looking at it this way, yes, elephants by definition are pests. They damage stored and field crops, which ultimately affects human food security during drought seasons. However, to be labelled the most disastrous agricultural pest seems a bit extreme. In fact, for this to be the reality they must be causing massive economic damage to crops and property; more than other pests.

While they do cause some local damage, Mamboleo found that they only cause moderate damage when compared to other pests. The damage inflicted by wild pigs actually far outweighs that of elephants and puts them in first place for the most disastrous agricultural pests. Elephants even sit behind rodents, European starlings, red billed quelea and desert locusts when looking at the line-up for the worst pest offenders in these areas. While it is true that elephants can inflict extensive damage, it is still significantly less than other pests. For local people, it is hard to see it this way as they have entire fields of crops decimated by these giants.

People are seeing persistent crop damage and associating this with pest behaviour. Because their farms often closely border protected elephant habitats, it means people are seeing more severe crop-raiding and they’re seeing it more frequently. While on the other hand, the elephants just see more food. Naturally, the elephants are getting the blame and inheriting this new title; from a local perspective it is an obvious response.

On the other hand, elephants are considered as agents of ecological restoration. Much like secret agents, they work inconspicuously to repair and re-establish ecosystem services that may have been damaged by human activities. A successful act of ecological restoration must be effective, efficient and engaging. This is otherwise known as the “triple E” principle, which serves as the guidelines for evaluating environmental restoration processes.

Elephant in India/ CC-BY 4.0 Sanghavisrini

Elephants are effective because their natural and physical abilities provide all sorts of environmental benefits to humans and other wildlife. They also have the ability to restructure their environments, sometimes opening up thick vegetation and helping their herbivore neighbours in the process.

Elephants are also efficient because of their high level of intelligence and behaviours; they are able to perform productive ecosystem rehabilitation activities in a consistent and timely manner. Usually this is without the support of human intervention. Elephants have been branded “ecosystem engineers” or “mega-gardeners” because of their role in dispersing seeds, helping both wildlife and humans. Through ecological restoration, these elephants are replenishing cultural resources and socioeconomic conditions for humans and allowing re-connection with nature. Some would call that engaging. This ecosystem restoration allows humans and other wildlife to reuse otherwise damaged ecosystems.

So what is the answer to whether elephants are the most disastrous agricultural pests or actually the agents of ecological restoration? This needs to be looked at from two separate viewpoints. Yes, they are pests, but they are not the most disastrous. And, yes, they are agents of ecological restoration. But they are both occurring simultaneously, depending on the perspective you view it. Can’t they be both?

This article was prepared by Master of International Nature Conservation student Quinn O’Halloran as part of the ECOL608 Research Methods in Ecology course.

Mamboleo, A.A., Doscher, C., & Paterson, A. (2017). Are elephants the most disastrous agricultural pests or the agents of ecological restorations? Journal of Biodiversity & Endangered Species, 5(185). doi:10.4172/2332-2543.1000185 .

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