Elephants as Ecosystem Engineers

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Elephants, because of their size, appetite, and migratory habits, disperse more seeds of more species further than any other animal.  They have been described as ecosystem engineers and mega- Gardeners of the Forest. We from South Asia should be proud that we also produce mega size engineers!

By Rajendra Shende, former Director UNEP and Chairman TERRE Policy Centre.

I requested a quote from my new friend Ian Redmond, Ambassador, UNEP Convention on Migratory Species, on the occasion of World Elephant Day. Ian is also Chairman, Ape Alliance-(www.twitter.com/4apes ), and Chairman, The Gorilla Organization  (www.gorillas.org). No one understands elephants’ multi-dimensional contributions to the ecology of our planet better than Ian. All his elephantine knowledge comes from his close observations by living with elephants right in their habitat. I heard him speaking a number of times not only on elephants’ size and their appetite but their never heard characteristics: like how big ears of elephants help in controlling their body temperatures and their mind boggling emotions including their anger, friendship and sad feeling for loss of their colleague. He wrote to me last night ( of 11th August 2020 )


 “ Elephants, because of their size, appetite and migratory habits, disperse more seeds of more species further than any other animal.  They have been described as ecosystem engineers and mega- #GardenersoftheForest.  They prune branches as they feed, fertilise the soils of Africa and Asia with their dung (about 1 tonne per week per elephant) and so maintain the health of globally important forests and savannah-woodlands. Thus we must Protect the #GardenersoftheForest today so we have more #trees tomorrow to prevent dangerous #ClimateChange.”


Can one imagine that elephants help in mitigating Climate Change by dispersing the seeds through their large dung? Research on wild animals emerges from the passionate study like what Ian has accomplished. No wonder he has been UNEP’s Ambassador for more than a decade now. One of his other quotes I like the most is :

“I am a naturalist by birth, a biologist by training, and a conservationist by necessity. But conservation for me isn’t just about saving species. On a larger scale, the planet needs us to save functioning eco-systems; on a smaller scale, we must also recognize that species are made up of individual animals. For me, it became personal when I had the privilege of getting to know individual wild animals in the wild… I can truthfully say that some of my best friends are gorillas, and I care passionately about them and the future of all life on Earth.”

I first met Ian in Gandhinagar in COP of CMS ( Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.) during  15-22 February 2020. We together organized the joint event between India and China on the conservation of wild animals, first of its kind. Chinese speakers participated virtually from Beijing due to COVID19.

It was a privilege for me to sit with Ian on the dais during that event.  Ian is designated as OBE (Order of British Empire ) and had introduced Gorilla to Dr. David Attenborough who later produced with help of Ian number of documentary films on wild animals. His work on behalf of animals was recognized in 1996 with the presentation of the PAWS Humane Achievement Award, at a ceremony in Hollywood, California, and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in 2013.

Interestingly, in Gandhinagar’s event jointly moderated by Ian and I, included speakers from a Chinese NGO called China Biodiversity Conservation Global Development Foundation ( CBCDGF). The speakers from China took a pledge not to trade in wild animals, which is considered as the possible origin of COVID19!

Ian told the audience there that we all have seen the elephants and their pictures in jungle.’ But do you know that elephants that live in caves?’  Ian Redmond’s researched underground elephants -elephants in the caves of Mt Elgon in Kenya and helped Sir David Attenborough to film them for the acclaimed BBC series ‘Life of Mammals’. 

Ian, along with his quote for World Elephants Day, sent me interesting and importantreading material written  by him in the National Geographic and the Guardian. I intend to read on the World Elephant day and truly celebrate it !  Here I share that reading material with the readers:

The ivory trade isn’t just a disaster for elephants. It threatens our future too | Ian Redmond https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/12/ivory-trade-elephants-future-forest-poachers

And one in Geographical Magazine:

Ecological Effects – Geographical Magazine http://geographical.co.uk/opinion/item/1870-ecological-effects

And one on the National Geographic website, all in 2016, a year elephants had an even greater impact on my than usual… https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2016/08/12/for-the-day-of-the-elephants-a-crash-course-in-conservation/

Author Dr. Shende Can be reached on

twitter @rajendrashende and web : rajendrashende.com


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