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Elephants can help achieve biodiversity and climate targets

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By John Scanlon

· 3 min read

At the opening of the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi, Kenya’s President William Ruto said Africa can be part of the solution to global warming, rather than a victim.

"For a very long time, we have looked at this as a problem. It is time we flipped and looked at it from the other side. There are immense opportunities as well. And that is why we are not here to catalogue grievances and list problems, we are here to scrutinise ideas, assess perspectives, so that we can unlock solutions."

The EPI Foundation warmly welcomes President Ruto’s remarks. Elephants, after all, are very much a case in point. Undeniably, climate change presents challenges to elephant conservation. Rising temperatures and drought are killing elephants. We’ve seen this in Kenya, for example, where in late 2022 the Kenya Wildlife Service reported hundreds of drought-related elephant deaths. Climate change is also causing elephants to change their migration routes as they search for diminishing supplies of water and food. This is one of the causes of increased human-elephant conflict in Africa. Elephants and people are competing for the same, increasingly scarce, resources, and both suffer as a consequence.  

Elephants, however, can also help us to fight climate change. Take a look at the EPI’s recent film from the forests of the Congo basin. Elephants are the forest gardeners. They disperse seeds through their dung, ensuring the spread and diversity of plant species. They also eat smaller trees and saplings, which reduces the density of vegetation and allows larger and taller trees to grow. These bigger trees store more carbon, thereby reducing the impact of climate change.

Recently, the EPI Foundation profiled Dr Ralph Chami, an economist formerly with the IMF, who has attempted to place a monetary value on these climate services provided by elephants. “If we were to pay a living elephant for the carbon sequestration services it provides, we would find its value to be a minimum of $1.75 million”, argues Dr Chami. “The ivory of an elephant killed by poachers might fetch $40,000. Living elephants are worth a lot more to our economy than their dead equivalents. So why do we continue to destroy them?”

We wish the African leaders gathered in Nairobi every success, as they come together to agree on a common plan to present to the UN’s COP 28 Climate Summit in Dubai, UAE later this year. We encourage them, and other world leaders, to take decisions that reflect the intricate links between the climate and biodiversity crises. If governments are to deliver on their globally agreed climate and biodiversity targets, they would be well served to remember that elephant conservation is part of the solution.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

John Scanlon AO is a seasoned leader in the fields of environment, governance and sustainable development, with a unique range of experience gained across multiple continents, disciplines and organisations. He has served in senior positions in the private sector, with government, international organisations, the United Nations, and not-for-profit organizations, and as chair or member of many boards and initiatives. This includes working with IUCN (Bonn), UNEP (Nairobi) and CITES (Geneva)

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