The ecological consequences of forest elephant declines for Afrotropical forests.

Abstract

Poaching is rapidly extirpating African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) from most of their historical range, leaving vast areas of elephant-free tropical forest. Elephants are ecological engineers that create and maintain forest habitat, thus their loss will have strong consequences for the composition and structure of Afrotropical forests. We evaluated the roles of forest elephants in seed dispersal, nutrient recycling, and herbivory and physical damage to predict the cascading ecological effects of their population declines. Loss of seed dispersal by elephants will favor tree species dispersed abiotically and by smaller dispersal agents, with tree species composition depending on the downstream effects of changes in elephant nutrient cycling and browsing. Loss of trampling and herbivory of seedlings and saplings will result in high tree density as they are released from the pressures of browsing. Diminished seed dispersal by elephants and high stem density are likely to reduce the recruitment of large trees, resulting in a more homogeneous forest structure and decreased carbon stocks. In sum, the loss of ecological services by forest elephants will likely transform Central African forests to be more like Neotropical forests, from which megafauna were extirpated thousands of years ago. Without intervention, as much as 96% of Central African forests will have modified species composition and structure as elephants are compressed into remaining protected areas. Stopping elephant poaching is an urgent first step to mitigating these effects, but long-term conservation will require land use planning that incorporates elephant habitat into forested landscapes that are being rapidly transformed by industrial agriculture and logging. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

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Published Version (Please cite this version)

10.1111/cobi.13035

Publication Info

Poulsen, John R, Cooper Rosin, Amelia Meier, Emily Mills, Chase L Nuñez, Sally E Koerner, Emily Blanchard, Jennifer Callejas, et al. (2017). The ecological consequences of forest elephant declines for Afrotropical forests. Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology. 10.1111/cobi.13035 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/16440.

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Scholars@Duke

Poulsen

John Poulsen

Associate Professor of Tropical Ecology

John Poulsen is an ecologist with broad interests in the maintenance and regeneration of tropical forests and conservation of biodiversity. His research has focused on the effects of anthropogenic disturbance, such as logging and hunting, on forest structure and diversity, abundance of tropical animals, and ecological processes. He has conducted most of his research in Central Africa, where he has also worked as a conservation manager, directing projects to sustainably manage natural resources in and around parks and reserves, and as the coordinator of government programs to develop low emissions strategies and quantify and monitor forest carbon.

Chase Nunez

Teaching Assistant

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow
Neil Williams President's Fellow


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