Forest Elephants – The New Yorker (2015)

African forest elephants have been featured in quite a few documentaries including the tropical rainforests episode of the Planet Earth series. Here in this short documentary we listen to Andrea Turkalo’s wonderful lecture on behavior of these charismatic megafaunal animals. She has been observing the elephants in Dzanga Research Camp at the Dzanga-Sangha National Park in Central African Republic for more than two decades. Andrea Turkalo is Associate Conservation Scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and cofounder of Cornell University’s The Elephant Listening Project at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York.

Africa’s forest elephants are in decline. According to estimates, their population number was around 100,000 in 2011 and they are less than 72,000 today.

Dzanga clearing is a special place for elephants. Because of their herbivorous diet these animals are exposed to a lot of toxic secondary metabolites synthesized by plants to protect themselves from herbivores. Potassium containing clay can neutralize these chemicals. Such clearings also known as salt licks attract many animals who seek those exposed locations for detoxification of plant toxins such as tannins in their diet. For example, Macaws in Peru have been observed to congregate around clay licks called “Colpa” by indigenous people. The phenomenon of ingesting soil is called geophagy. It is committed by many animals including Humans.

In 2013 the elephants at Dzanga Bai were massacred by seleka guerillas. Turkalo was forced to flee the camp. She returned after more than a year. The following video tells the story of her return.

African savanna elephants have been demonstrated to disperse seeds up to 65 kilometers away and similarly forest elephants must be playing a crucial role in plant diversity.

Another fascinating fact about elephants is that they have an extraordinary capacity for suppressing cancerous tumors. Perhaps this is not surprising at all. For an organism to attain massive sizes fighting errors during cell division must be an evolutionary prerequisite. This is also known as Peto’s Paradox.

Peto noted that, in general, cancer rates didn’t increase as the body size or age of animals increased. The cells of large-bodied or older animals should have divided many more times and accumulate more mutations leading to cancer. Elephants have 20 copies of a tumor suppressing gene called p53 in their genome. Humans and other mammals have only single copy. The gene produces the TP53 protein either repairing the damage or killing off the cell.

Elephants need protection and there are quite a few organisations working to monitor and conserve them including the Lukuru Foundation.

 

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