Often in our busy lives whenever we encounter wildlife, whether online or in our daily routine, their beauty or cuteness awes us and then we move along. Yet, every species contributes to the intricate web of life and are important for human survival. Five particular species — African elephants, sea otters, tapirs, whales, and wolves — play an even bigger role. As keystone species, these animals are vitally important to their environments and help stabilize our global climate system.
The smallest of the three species of elephants, live in the Congolian rainforests. Known as ‘Gardeners of the Congo,’ they prune the jungle in their search for food. As they forage for seeds, fruit, and leaves in the lush vegetation, they stomp on fast-growing bushes which allow for slower growing trees to become well established. These trees sequester more carbon dioxide from the air than smaller, more aggressive plants. So much so, that each elephant aids in capturing over 9,000 tons of CO2 in its lifetime. Economist Ralph Chami found that in total, African forest elephants are providing $150 billion USD worth of carbon capture services every year.
One of the most adored species on our planet, act as guardians of underwater kelp forests. Kelp forests are one the most efficient absorbers of CO2, using carbon from the atmosphere to grow leafy structures below the surface. Yet, these forests are particularly delicious if you are a sea urchin. If left unchecked, these small, spiky marine animals multiply rapidly, sweeping across the ocean floor and devouring entire stands of kelp. As keystone predators, sea otters keep these urchin populations in check. A study found that kelp forests guarded by sea otters can absorb 12 times more carbon dioxide than those without. An estimated carbon capture value of $200-400 million USD annually is provided by sea otters.
With a body similar to a pig and a short, elephant-like trunk, may seem odd at first glance but are essential to helping rainforests come back to life. Tapirs eat a wide variety of fruit and leave behind seeds in their droppings, which then germinate and grow. A study found that tapirs spread three times more seeds in degraded areas than in forests. This natural regeneration is among the cheapest and most feasible ways to restore tropical forests. Researchers identified 24 different species of seeds in tapir droppings, many of which eventually become large trees within forests, absorbing additional carbon to help slow the warming of the planet.
As Earth’s largest mammal, absorb an average of 33 tons of CO2 each throughout their lifetimes. When they die, their carcasses fall to the bottom of the ocean and remains there for centuries, keeping that stored carbon out of the atmosphere. Even their excrement goes to work! Whale droppings act as a fertilizer for phytoplankton, which pulls 10 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere into the deep ocean each year. Unfortunately, whale populations have dramatically declined due to pollution and hunting. If whale populations were allowed to return to around 4-5 million, a massive 1.7 billion tons of carbon could be captured each year.
Nowhere is the importance of more evident than in Yellowstone National Park. In 1926, as part of a policy to eliminate all predators, the last wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park was eliminated by employees. The entire ecosystem fell out of balance. Elk populations exploded causing overgrazing of willows and aspens. Without those trees, songbirds began to disappear, beavers could no longer build their dams as riverbanks eroded, and water temperatures rose until they were too high for cold water fish. In 1995, 14 wolves were brought back. Deer and elk populations responded immediately, trees rebounded, riverbanks stabilized, and birds returned along with beavers, eagles, foxes, and badgers. Scientists celebrate it as one of the greatest reintroduction stories ever.
Wildlife are so much more than amazing creatures that provide us solace and wonder; They are vital in keeping our entire planet’s climate system in balance. These five species are proof that protecting Earth’s wildlife is essential to solving the climate crisis. Without them we wouldn’t be here today, and we need them to help stabilize the climate for tomorrow. We can't do it alone.