There are many natural situations where, to a casual observer, an animal or plant appears to be a useless consumer of resources. As conservationists try to solicit funds to protect elephants, others say those animals have no useful function. Elephants consume vegetation which can cause hardships in periods of drought. However, as scientists study the role of elephants in desert survival, the need for these animals has become increasingly understood.
Savannah elephants live in eastern and southern Africa, with the highest densities in Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa. In those regions, termites build huge mounds, and they bring a large number of elements and compounds to the surface as they dig. Eventually, the mounds flatten, creating depressions that fill with water during the rainy season. At that time, elephants come and dig up the nutrients they need as they wallow in the mud. They leave the area coated with soil which they carry away, leaving a deeper depression that eventually becomes a large water hole.
In addition to enlarging the water hole, the elephants deposit massive amounts of dung. The dung contains plant seeds that grow to become the start of vegetation around the water hole. That vegetation brings insects which, in turn, bring birds. Wading birds carry in fish eggs, bringing a wide variety of life to what was a desert. The oasis this process produces is critically essential to animal and plant life and humans.
The role of elephants in desert survival in Africa makes preserving them a key to the survival of all life in the region. Elephants have unique properties critical to the success of this system. Matriarch elephants remember where previous water holes were and lead their group back to dig and enlarge those holes, eventually making it an oasis. Some plants are correlated to bloom and provide seeds at the proper time for other forms of life. If the water hole dries up, some fish, amphibians, and reptiles can burrow into the soil and survive for up to five years, waiting for the next rain.
Earth’s design automatically produces all kinds of ecosystems, including deserts. God has designed life to adapt and exist, even in extreme environments, and the role of elephants in desert survival is a great example.
— John N. Clayton © 2021
Reference: PBS network program on elephants, termites, and life in the dry African desert on November 5, 2021.