There’s no arguing with the majesty of elephants. These intelligent, complex and emotional beasts have come to symbolize wildlife conservation efforts around the globe. Across the African continent, they are under threat from encroaching human settlements and continued poaching — in the summer of 2018, an aerial survey in Botswana found 87 elephants had been killed and their tusks cut off for their ivory, the biggest slaughter in recent years. But elephants are part of a complex ecosystem and scientists and conservationists know protecting them isn’t just crucial to the species itself, but for other African animals, birds and plants.
Elephants are a keystone species — their presence and activities play a crucial role in maintaining the health of the savannah and forests they inhabit. For example, they use their tusks to dig for water, providing this scarce resource for other species as well. By eating shrubs, small trees and other vegetation, elephants keep the savanna ecosystem from turning into forest. Meanwhile, they deposit the seeds of the fauna they eat, inside nutrient-rich dung that regenerates the soil, enabling those seeds to thrive.
There are only 415,000 African elephants left in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, with habitat loss and poaching the most dangerous threats to the species’ survival. The good news: Advanced technologies, such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence — plus an emphasis on community-led conservation — are helping scientists and conservationists protect elephants and the African wilderness.