Large animal activity can combat climate change

New research published today in Current Biology shows that large, iconic animals, such as the elephants and rhinos, play a vital role in helping their ecosystems resist and recover from the impacts of climate change.

Today’s findings come as conservation leaders from across Africa come together for Tusk’s Conservation Symposium in Maasai Mara, to strategise how to build resilient, sustainable conservation organisations that can weather pandemics and other challenging scenarios.

"When it comes to restoring ecosystems to absorb carbon and mitigate climate change, trees tend to get most of the attention. This study takes a different approach, and explores the extent to which protecting and restoring large animal wildlife can help us tackle and adapt to climate change. In doing so, we identify places where biodiversity and climate change goals can be aligned, where they might conflict and where there is more research to be done"

Professor Yadvinder Malhi, first author on the report

The research, commissioned by African wildlife conservation charity Tusk and sponsored by ISPS Handa, was the result of a collaboration between the University of Oxford, the University of Sussex, and Aarhus University.

The report finds that there are three main ways that large animals can help combat climate change:

  1. Increase carbon stocks: large animals graze plants, fertilise vegetation and disperse their seeds, which helps to maintain overall ecosystem diversity
  2. Limit the impact of fires: large animals create gaps in vegetation through grazing and browsing, which reduces the availability of fuel for fires
  3. Create strong cooling effects: large animals increase the amount of sunlight reflected by the Earth’s surface by shifting vegetation to expose open ground surface, can help mitigate global heating.
A black and white photo of a herd of african elephants

Win-win opportunities

While Africa’s largest animals play a vital role in combatting climate change, their remaining populations are under increasing risk, with animals such as elephants, rhinos and gorillas facing a number of threats to their survival. Threats include habitat loss, poaching, and human wildlife conflict.

To tackle the twin issues of climate change and biodiversity loss, the report identifies the most significant ‘win-win’ opportunities to combat both at the same time.

For instance, by protecting and increasing large animal numbers in temperate, tropical, and sub-tropical grassland ecosystems, we can reduce the intensity and spread of fires, which serves to drive down carbon emissions and create more diverse habitats.

Similarly, by increasing large animal populations in tundra ecosystems (treeless regions found in the Arctic and on the tops of mountains), soils become more exposed to cold air which helps to preserve permafrost. This can lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in soil carbon stocks.

Likewise, large marine animals play an important role in the fertilisation of phytoplankton, which is estimated to capture 37 billion tonnes of CO2 each year. By protecting our ocean’s largest animals that help fertilise phytoplankton, we can tackle biodiversity loss and climate change adaption at the same time.

“Ecosystems require all elements of the web of life (animals, plants, soils, ocean sediment etc) in order to function optimally. Research is increasingly demonstrating the value of diverse, intact ecosystems and their ability to deliver multiple benefits, including climate change and biodiversity loss mitigation.”

Dr Susan Canney, co-author of the report and Tusk board member

To read more about this research, published in Current Biology, please visit: