On Earth Day, commemorated on 22 April, we honour the beautiful planet we call home.  This global event is celebrated every year by more than a billion people in 192 countries – all in support of conservation. This year’s focus: the world’s endangered species.

This year, Earth Day is putting a spotlight on the world’s endangered species. The ‘Protect your species’ campaign aims to bring attention to the plight of iconic wild animals and their declining populations. We take a look at some of the endangered species identified by the campaign: elephant, giraffe and whale.

Elephants

Elephants are among the wild’s most enchanting creatures. Their larger than life bodies and gentle presence will cast a spell on anyone. Yet sadly, all over Africa, the numbers of elephants are decreasing as they are being poached for their ivory.

“We have recently seen a second upsurge of elephant poaching sweep across Africa. A comprehensive scientific assessment of the situation estimated that 144,000 elephants were killed for their tusks in the space of seven years,” says Michelle Henley, director, co-founder and principal researcher of Elephants Alive, a non-profit working to ensure the survival of elephants and their habitats.

“The southern African states now bear the bulk of the continental population due to excessive killings in Central and East Africa. Sadly, while elephants bear tusks, they will remain vulnerable and in need of protection from human greed,” she added.

A troop of Addo elephants. Picture by Romi Boom

The continent’s constant gardeners

There are many ways that ellies contribute to Africa’s ecosystem. Michelle points out that elephants are keystone species so some ecological processes are dependent on their presence. According to a study done by a UCT student,  elephant bulls can disperse large seeds up to 65km from their source. That is further than any other seed dispersing land mammal, plus elephants have the added ability to carry heavy, large fruits, like that of the sausage tree, which few other animals could.

“They are constant gardeners and change the vegetation structure and prune trees, thereby lowering the canopy so other browsers can access food. Elephants are also path finders and makers, carving routes across the landscape which they dot with their 150kg of dung per day, ensuring that nutrients are spread against the gradient and seeds are deposited in a rich organic mulch for enhanced germination. Elephants make their landscape and should be viewed as integral parts of the last great wilderness areas left on this planet,” Michelle explains.

What can we do to help conserve ellies?

We can begin to realise the value of elephants at a deeper level. They ask of us to share our resources; in exchange they provide ecological services that benefit the wild places places they occupy. They show us how to link conservation areas across international borders. They call us to action to protect them beyond the sad and lifeless value of their tusks or hides. Their existence calls for the preservation of the few remaining wilderness havens which transcend space and time.

Visit www.elephantsalive.org to learn more about their projects, from tracking elephants across borders to using beehives to keep elephants away from crops.

Adorable baby elephant. Picture courtesy of SANParks Honorary Rangers

Also read: The Last Elephants: are these majestic animals facing extinction?

Giraffes

The tall and elegant giraffe makes an unforgettable impression. Thanks to their striking coats and impressive size, they’re one of the most sought-after sightings in the wild. But did you know that giraffes are considered endangered across Africa?

Giraffe boast many unique traits, from exceptionally long tongues to blood vessels that guard against sudden changes in pressure. “They can close their nostrils when feeding so that ants cannot enter the nasal area. The way they walk, run and gallop, their blood pressure system and circulation are all unique,” says Dr Francois Deacon, Senior Lecturer: Animal and Wildlife and Grassland Sciences at University of the Free State.

“Another extraordinary trait of giraffes is that they can thermoregulate their body temperatures. And we think they can communicate long distance,” he added.

“Giraffes are iconic to the African continent – imagine an African plain without giraffe?”

Three giraffes parading in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Picture by Dee Roelofsz

Landscaper of the savanna

Because giraffes are large browsers they have the power to shape habitats. They spend large amounts of time feeding, thereby pruning trees and opening up the habitat for other wildlife to use. Like elephants, giraffe also distribute seeds across the landscape. Giraffe might even act as pollinators for some trees as they move from blossom to blossom, tree to tree.

What can we do to safeguard giraffe?

We can begin by making others aware that giraffe are endangered. Giraffe are called the ‘forgotten megafauna’ because they are not studied as much as elephant, yet there are far fewer giraffe than elephant left in Africa.

The University of the Free State’s Giraffe Conservation Research focuses on conservation, education and research to be used as an example for other countries. Learn more about UFS’s contribution to giraffe conservation strategies in Africa.

Picture by Samuel Cox

Whales

South Africa’s shoreline is blessed with enthralling marine visitors like the southern right, Bryde’s and humpback whales. With these magnificent and charismatic creatures living along our coast, it is crucial that we do our bit to conserve these gentle giants.

“Many whale and dolphin species are endangered according to the IUCN criteria (red list assessments). As charismatic megafauna, they are often seen as flagship species for ocean conservation,” says Els Vermeulen, research manager and post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Pretoria.

“In terms of baleen whales in South Africa, humpback and right whales are doing relatively well in numbers, as their populations are increasing following bans on whaling. However, other factors are affecting them now such as climate change, entanglements and collisions with ships. The inshore population of Bryde’s whales is listed as endangered and it is probably South Africa’s most endangered baleen whale species. Their main concern in this country relates to entanglements in fishing gear and overfishing,” she adds.

Els explains that among the toothed whales (a category that includes sperm whales, killer whales and dolphins), the humpback dolphin is South Africa’s most endangered species, probably followed by the heaviside dolphin endemic to the West Coast. While other dolphin species are faring relatively well in South African waters, they are at increasing risk of pollution from both plastic and ocean noise.

A Southern Right Whale splashing in the water. Picture by Sandra Hoerbs

The ocean’s fertilisers

“Whales, both baleen and toothed whales, play an important role in the ecosystem. Some toothed whales, such as the killer whale, are the ocean’s top predators. Whereas baleen whales are filter-feeders and eat at a much lower level of the food chain,” she adds.

“Whales thus regulate the ecosystem and food chain from both the top and bottom. At the same time, the presence of whale faeces ensures that the ocean gets ‘fertilised’ so to speak.” The iron in whale faeces is a vital component to promote the growth and photosynthesis of phytoplankton. It is estimated phytoplankton produce about 50% of the oxygen we breathe as a byproduct during photosynthesis.

“Many whales also feed at great depths, but excrete close to the surface. They thus function as an ‘iron pump’ so to speak, bringing up nutrients from the deep to the surface,” Els concludes.

What can we do to help protect whales?

We can make the oceans a more hospitable place for whales to live in by reducing our use of plastics and doing regular beach clean-ups. We must support sustainable fishing to prevent the oceans from being depleted and to provide sufficient food for these marine mammals.

Visit www.adoptawhale.co.za to learn more about the research initiatives of the Whale Unit of the University of Pretoria.