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Hunting Elephants Could Destroy Tropical Forests

First Posted: Nov 18, 2014 11:44 AM EST

Overhunting may be causing elephants populations to decline, but it's also affecting the vegetation around them. Scientists have found that the dramatic loss of elephants is also leading to the local extinction of certain tree species.

"The entire ecosystem is at risk," said Trevor Caughlin, one of the researchers, in a news release. "My hope for this study is that it will provide a boost for those trying to curb overhunting and provide incentives to stop the wildlife trade."

While at the beginning of the 20th century, elephants in Thailand exceeded 100,000, today they number just 2,000. Poachers and hunters have targeted elephants, and the results are obvious.

In order to see how this hunting might be impacting forests, the researchers examined seed dispersal in Thailand. More specifically, they looked at how elephants contribute to moving seeds around the forest and how this impacts tree species.

"Previously, it's been unclear what role seed dispersal plays in tree population dynamics," said Caughlin. "A tree makes millions of seeds during its lifetime, and only one of those seeds needs to survive to replace the parent tree. On the surface, it doesn't seem like seed dispersal would be that important for tree population. What we found with this study is that seed dispersal has an impact over the whole life of a tree."

In fact, the researchers found that loss of animal seed dispersers increases the probability of tree extinction by more than tenfold over a 100-year period. This, in particular, shows the importance of conserving elephants.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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