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African forest elephants fight climate change by contributing in surprising ways to natural carbon capture

Consider the plight of African forest elephants. Some 1.1 million once roamed the central African rainforests, but deforestation and poaching have diminished their population to less than one-tenth their former number (see Chart 1). They likely face extinction unless action is taken.

Most people outside central Africa are unaware of the existence of these forest elephants. When people think of African elephants, they picture those of a different species, elephants that roam the savannas. Except for dedicated local conservationists and the biologists who study these animals, African forest elephants have few advocates.

This situation could change dramatically if the valuable service these forest elephants provide were more widely understood. Although there is virtually no ecotourism in the central African rainforests, for both geographic and political reasons, African forest elephants contribute something of tremendous social and market value. As it turns out, these elephants fight climate change by contributing significantly to natural carbon capture.

Population growth

It took more than 50,000 years for world population to reach 1 billion people. Since 1960, we have added successive billions every one to two decades. The world population was 3 billion in 1960; it reached 6 billion around 2000, and the United Nations projects it will surpass 9 billion by 2037. The population growth rate has been slowing, however, from peak annual rates in excess of 2 percent in the late 1960s, to about 1 percent currently, to half that by 2050.

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caption 1

The increase in carbon storage caused by forest elephant activity is huge—as well as valuable. Biologists estimate that if the population of African forest elephants returned to its former size and they recovered their former range, it would increase carbon capture by 13 metric tons (1 metric ton = 1,000 kg) per hectare (10,000 square meters). Since the former range of African forest elephants was 2.2 million square kilometers, each of which comprises 100 hectares, and forest elephants are now at about 9 percent of their pre-poaching population, carbon capture from a recovery of these elephants could be equivalent to more than 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per square kilometer. That is the same amount of carbon dioxide captured by over a quarter of a million trees, or 14 times what is captured by trees in New York City’s Central Park.

The increase in carbon storage caused by forest elephant activity is huge—as well as valuable.

If we multiply this increase in carbon dioxide captured by the 2.2 million square kilometers of rainforest affected by a rebound in elephant populations by the average market price of a metric ton of carbon dioxide—just under $25 in 2019—we get a total present value of over $150 billion for the carbon-capture services of African forest elephants.

If we then take the total value of the service provided by African forest elephants and divide it by their current population, we find that each elephant is responsible for service worth more than $1.75 million (see Chart 3). On the other hand, the ivory of an elephant killed by poachers fetches only about $40,000, so it is clear that the benefits from a healthy and thriving elephant community are substantial.

Unfortunately, these elephants are fighting an existential threat, with poaching and deforestation pushing them to extinction.

Unfortunately, these elephants are fighting an existential threat, with poaching and deforestation pushing them to extinction.

RALPH CHAMI is an assistant director in the IMF’s Institute for Capacity Development.

CONNEL FULLENKAMP is professor of the practice of economics and director of undergraduate studies in the Duke University Economics Department.

THOMAS COSIMANO is professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

FABIO BERZAGHI is a researcher at the Laboratory of Climate and Environment Sciences in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.

Opinions expressed in articles and other materials are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect IMF policy.

References:

Berzaghi, F., M. Longo, M. Ciais, and others. 2019. “Carbon Stocks in Central African Forests Enhanced by Elephant Disturbance.” Nature Geoscience 12:725–29. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0395-6.

Chami, R., T. Cosimano, C. Fullenkamp, and S. Oztosun. 2019. “Nature’s Solution to Climate Change.” Finance and Development 56 (4): 34–38.

Chami, R., C. Fullenkamp, F. Berzaghi, S. Español-Jiménez, M. Marcondes, and J. Palazzo. 2020. “On Valuing Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change: A Framework with Application to Elephants and Whales.” Economic Research Initiatives at Duke Working Paper 297, Duke University, Durham, NC. https://ssrn.com/abstract=3686168 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3686168.