In the West and Central African rainforests, forest elephants are unwittingly helping to save the world. As this relatively small elephant tears through the rainforest, stripping bark from trees and digging up roots, its actions help the forest store more carbon in its trees.

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According to a 2019 study, each forest elephant helps increase the rainforests’ carbon capture by 9,500 metric tons of CO2 per square kilometer. This approximately equals the emissions from driving 2,047 gas-guzzling cars for a year. Elephants perform this service by trampling the smaller trees competing with larger ones for light and nutrients, thus increasing the average tree diameter and total above-ground biomass.

Related: Both African elephant species face extinction

Even elephant excrement helps reverse climate change, as they deposit nutrients and seeds wherever they go. “Elephants help disperse trees, which other animals rely on,” said lead author Fabio Berzaghi, as reported by BBC. “The trees promoted by elephants support primates and many other animals.”

Unfortunately, the elephant population has plummeted from 1.2 million in the 1970s to about 100,000 in a 2013 study. They could go extinct. According to wildlife scientist Fiona Maisels, between 2002 and 2013, elephants were lost at the rate of 60 a day, or one every 20 minutes. “By the time you eat breakfast, another elephant has been slaughtered to produce trinkets for the ivory market,” Maisels said at the time. In some circles, ivory from a dead forest elephant is worth $21,000.

Now Ralph Chami, assistant director of the Institute for Capacity Development at the International Monetary Fund, wants to put a better value on forest elephants. Instead of focusing on how much the elephants need us to save them, he thinks we should focus on how much we need them to save us. Each elephant’s carbon capture potential is worth $1.75 million, Chami estimated. “The forest elephant is a natural asset that provides value to us over its lifetime,” Chami said, as reported by BBC. “A living elephant provides services worth millions, it is helping us fight climate change and is worth much more alive than dead.”


Lead image via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters