Does Our Future Include Elephants, Rhinos and Gorillas?
by Jessica Ramos
Some of the world’s biggest — and most threatened — animals are herbivores. While these plant-powered creatures rarely hurt a fly, a new study shows that they’re under attack. And not so surprisingly, humans are largely to blame.
In the Not Too Distant Future… “Empty Landscapes”
As reported in The Washington Post, a study published in Science Advances paints a very dark earth. In the not too distant future, picture our planet with “empty landscapes.” A landscape without elephants, rhinos, gorillas and hippos just to name a few. The authors of the study are clear: the herbivores are in trouble, and it’s our fault. Wrap your head around this: 60 percent of the large herbivores are now threatened by extinction.
What’s exactly hurting the herbivores? The short answer is humans. More specifically, our growing population, our out of hand hunting and our voracious appetite for animal products that devastates herbivore habitats. And if we couple herbivores’ naturally low birth rates to all of that, it’s easy to see how they’re getting the short end of the stick.
It’s going to take worldwide action to turn this around. We can help protect the herbivores if together we reduce our birth rates, give women basic rights, consume less animals and animal byproducts, stop the poaching, protect designated protected areas and fight climate change. It’s a tall order, but aren’t they worth the sacrifices?
Recklessly losing our majestic herbivores is a crime. But it’s also much more than that. Large herbivores play vital roles in their environments.
3 Herbivore Ecological Engineers
You can think of these herbivores as ecological engineers. As any good nature documentary shows, it’s easy to see how predators keep other animals — and the environment — under control. While not as exciting as a lioness stalking a gazelle, large herbivores also keep their environment in check. Here a few ways large herbivores serve their environments.
Elephants aren’t the best seed digesters, and that’s great news for their environments. Elephants can leave precious seeds wherever they plop down and relieve themselves. They also actively sculpt their environment when they’re “digging with their front legs, pulling up grass [and] knocking down big trees,” reports BBC.
Extinction Red Alert!: An elephant is killed every 15 minutes for its tusks; at this rate, none will be left roaming in 2025.
Up until recently, rhinos got very little credit for engineering their environment. According to Smithsonian Magazine, rhinos are equipped to knock down trees. And research shows that areas with less rhinos “had 60 to 80 percent less short grass cover than places where rhinos frequently hung out.”
Extinction Red Alert!: In 2014, one rhino was killed every eight hours just in South Africa.
Like other primates, gorillas help the environment in two main ways. Primates play key role in how seeds are dispersed — they can literally structure entire ecosystems. Their role as folivores also puts them in the eco engineering position; for instance, they’ll eat the flowers so much that the plant species “does not set fruit.”
Extinction Red Alert!: Three of the four gorilla species are critically endangered. The Cross River Gorilla only has approximately 300 members left.
It’s clear that humans aren’t the only ones who can change the landscape. We’re making critical changes to our environment that have consequences larger than we know. Unfortunately, the large herbivores can’t keep up. Can you imagine what our world will look like without them?