Large herbivores, such as elephants, can have important effects on ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles. Yet, the influence of elephants on the structure, productivity and carbon stocks in Africa’s rainforests remain largely unknown. Here, we quantify those effects by incorporating elephant disturbance in the Ecosystem Demography model, and verify the modelled effects by comparing them with forest inventory data from two lowland primary forests in Africa. We find that the reduction of forest stem density due to the presence of elephants leads to changes in the competition for light, water and space among trees. These changes favour the emergence of fewer and larger trees with higher wood density. Such a shift in African’s rainforest structure and species composition increases the long-term equilibrium of aboveground biomass. The shift also reduces the forest net primary productivity, given the trade-off between productivity and wood density. At a typical density of 0.5 to 1 animals per km2, elephant disturbances increase aboveground biomass by 26–60 t ha−1. Conversely, the extinction of forest elephants would result in a 7% decrease in the aboveground biomass in central African rainforests. These modelled results are confirmed by field inventory data. We speculate that the presence of forest elephants may have shaped the structure of Africa’s rainforests, which probably plays an important role in differentiating them from Amazonian rainforests.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)