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Elephants and the environment

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Local overpopulation of elephants is usually the result of old migration routes being cut off, forcing the elephants into reserves – like the Maasai Mara and its neighbouring conservancies – where their massive appetites can appear destructive. Adults may consume up to 170kg of plant material daily, so it’s estimated that several thousand tonnes of foliage pass through the Maasai Mara elephant population’s collective gut each month. This foliage destruction puts new life into the soil, however, as acacia seeds dunged by elephants are released when dung beetles tackle the football-sized droppings, breaking them into pellets and pulling them into their burrows where the seeds germinate. Elephants also dig up dried-out waterholes with their tusks, providing moisture for other animals. Elephants are architects of their environment, setting the inter-species agenda by knocking over trees, creating deadwood habitats for invertebrates and causing hundreds of other impacts, all of which are natural functions in a dynamic ecosystem. The jury is still out on how it works when the wildlife corridors are closed, or the parks fenced in. What is not in doubt is that their ivory is increasingly valuable and poaching is on the rise again. And when they are closely managed and secured in safe sanctuaries, the elephant populations quickly reach unsustainable levels. The Kenya Wildlife Service is getting proficient at translocating elephants, moving them around to balance the numbers.

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