How hunting and poaching affect climate change

The removal of large fauna from forests is contributing to the carbon crisis
01 September 2023

Interview with 

Elizabeth Bennett, Wildlife Conservation Society


A tropical rainforest


As you will probably be aware, we are in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, and one of the regions being hit the hardest are the world’s forests. Not only is deforestation increasing, but the ongoing trade of hunting and poaching is having a devastating impact on some of the planet’s largest and most charismatic species. In fact, poaching is estimated to be driving 30,000 species towards extinction. But now, a new study has just been released detailing that hunting and poaching is not just bad news for the animals themselves, but also the climate. The removal of large organisms is causing more carbon which is normally stored in these forests to be released in several different ways. Will Tingle spoke to the Wildlife Conservation Society's Dr. Elizabeth Bennett.

Elizabeth - The animals that are often the target of hunters because they're big and because they're spectacular, so they provide a lot of food and they also have tusks and horns that can be sold, are the large animals. If you can picture a monkey or a hornbill or a toucan, with big beaks, they can have very large fruits with big seeds and they disperse those seeds. And the trees which have those big fruits and big seeds tend to be bigger trees with harder wood, more dense wood, and therefore they capture and store more carbon. So over time, and it's a gradual process, but over time as those big seed eaters and seed dispersers are wiped out of a forest, then you'll get a gradual change in the tree composition of the forest to smaller, less dense wood trees which store and capture less carbon. So overall, you are reducing the value of that forest to mitigating climate change. Then elephants, which have been really hit very hard by hunting. On top of that, they change the composition of the forest through the way they eat, through their browsing. So they tend to eat smaller, more edible trees, little bushes and that sort of thing, which are more digestible. And that means that you again get a gradual change in the composition of the forest over time so that your big trees, which aren't eaten by elephants, tend to become more dominant in the forest. So again, overall, the impact is that you get a forest with bigger trees, with denser wood, which store more carbon and capture more carbon from the atmosphere. And so that's huge in relation to climate change, particularly because the climate change crisis is so extreme. We want to do everything we can to make sure we have all the tools in the toolbox to address it. And by wiping out some of these wild species, we're removing a tool in the toolbox to capture and store carbon.

Will - How much of an impact on the climate might this be having?

Elizabeth - Various studies have shown that loss of large mammals in different tropical forests around the world can lead to losses of 10% or more of the above ground biomass, the above ground weight of trees in the forest. So that's very significant.

Will - That is extraordinary, isn't it, that 10% of above ground vegetation could be lost due to poaching or hunting. Surely knowing that and being able to quantify that means that we can put more stringent protections in place for these organisms.

Elizabeth - The amount of resources spent on protecting wildlife in tropical forests in countries around the world, and this isn't just in tropical forests, it's wildlife conservation in general, is greatly underfunded and under-resourced around the world, particularly in some of the poorer tropical forest countries. So what this hopefully will do is, firstly, the knowledge that these animals are really important in mitigating climate change, hopefully will influence policies of governments to increase protection of them. But more importantly, hopefully it could influence funding streams. Wild species have no market value if they stay in the forest apart from tourism, which in forest areas tends not to bring in huge amounts of money. But carbon does have an increasing market value. So if the carbon of those wild species, their carbon value becomes a central part of the rapidly emerging carbon markets, that has the potential to raise very significant extra funds for forest protection and management, including protection of its wildlife. And if you have a carbon market for a forest which has its full elephant and primate and bird populations intact, that could raise very significant extra funds. And that's a really exciting potential opportunity.

Will - So as cynical as it sounds, the sooner we can put a monetary value on these organisms, the more likely they are to be protected or worth something.

Elizabeth - Sadly, yes. And it's a monetary value that would be keeping them in the wild, in the forest, for performing their natural functions rather than their market value for hunting them and taking them out of the forest, which is currently the main market value, sadly, that they have.

Will - This shouldn't really be perhaps the main reason we want to keep them alive. We want to keep them alive because they are wonderful and special organisms.

Elizabeth - Absolutely. I mean, every single animal in the tropical forest that we're talking about is spectacular. It's beautiful. It's the result of millions of years of evolution. And the world is a richer place because they're all there.


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