Tim has worked closely with FFI since 1999. He has edited &FFI (formerly Fauna & Flora magazine) since its inception in 2001 and is the author of With Honourable Intent - A Natural History of Fauna & Flora International, published in 2017.
Not all heroes wear capes. When it comes to combating climate change, some of our most valuable allies come equipped with scales, helmets, trunks and roots. In case anyone out there is still wondering what nature has ever done for us, here’s a quartet of species that are quietly contributing to the climate fight, all of them on the radar of Fauna & Flora International (FFI).
The humble pangolin is not the first animal that springs to mind in discussions about nature’s climate heroes. Its principal claim to fame is an unenviable one: pangolins are believed to be the most trafficked mammal in the world. More than a million of them are estimated to have been taken from the wild since 2000, with poaching for their meat and scales, driven particularly by demand from China and Vietnam, considered to be the main cause of population declines.
Juvenile Sunda pangolin. Credit: Zaharil Dzulkafly
Among other notable characteristics is their armadillo-like ability to curl up into a virtually impenetrable ball, but they also have largely unheralded capabilities as our armoured allies in the climate fight. The clue is in their other, perhaps more familiar name: scaly anteaters are capable of hoovering up industrial quantities of insects – 70 million a year, according to some estimates. In satisfying their enormous appetite for ants, these sticky-tongued termite terminators are performing a vital service for us too, acting as unpaid forest guardians and gardeners.
What’s more, their powerful claws enable them to unearth subterranean termite nests and dig deep burrows – up to 40 metres long in the case of the giant pangolin – activities that are hugely beneficial for the soil.
When we protect pangolins, we’re not just ensuring the survival of one of the world’s quirkiest, cutest and most endangered creatures. We’re also protecting their forest habitat, which in turn is protecting our planet from some of the worst effects of climate change by sequestering vast quantities of carbon in the vegetation and soil.
The helmeted hornbill is one of the most visually and vocally striking members of this charismatic bird family. Like many other hornbill species, it is characterised by a prominent casque that sits on top of its bulky and conspicuous bill.
Typically, hornbill casques are light and hollow, but the helmeted hornbill’s headgear is a solid, ivory-like block that lends itself to being carved into ornaments. Increasing demand for such products poses a grave threat to the survival of the species throughout most of its range. Severe hunting pressure and widespread habitat loss have brought the helmeted hornbill perilously close to extinction.
Male helmeted hornbill. Credit: Thipwan/Bigstock
The loss of this critically endangered species would not just deprive us of one of the world’s most extraordinary birds, but also leave a gaping hole in the forest ecosystem within which hornbills play such a pivotal role. That role includes long-distance seed dispersal for some of the giant trees that, once mature, are capable of storing huge volumes of carbon.
Hornbills are mainly frugivorous – specialist fruit-eaters to you and me – and the value of their feeding preferences and techniques in maintaining a healthy forest, particularly in transporting seeds well away from the parent tree, should not be underestimated. Such is their ability to promote the natural regeneration of forest and help reconnect fragmented patches of forest that they are sometimes referred to as the ‘farmers of the forest’, but they also deserve recognition as canopy-dwelling climate heroes.
Africa’s savannah elephants are rarely out of the spotlight, but their forest counterparts in West Africa and their close cousins in Asia tend to be overlooked – and that includes an underappreciation of their value in combating climate change.
African forest elephants are smaller and, despite their vast bulk, far less conspicuous than the more familiar savannah elephants that we are accustomed to seeing on our TV screens. As their name suggests, they tend to inhabit densely forested areas, making them much harder to monitor. Forest elephants were recognised as a separate species only as recently as March this year. They were immediately accorded Critically Endangered status on the IUCN Red List, the highest category of threat for a species that still occurs in the wild.
Forest elephant in Guinea. Credit: Gaston Touaro
FFI has been protecting African forest elephants in Guinea and other range countries since 2009. These forest giants traverse through their habitat in herds. In doing so, they help shape the forest in a number of ways. As well as dispersing seeds in their dung, they also leave a trail of destruction in their wake as they trample vegetation, browse on saplings, scrape off tree bark and carve out a network of permanent paths through the forest. Counterintuitively, this actually contributes to forest health, enabling larger trees to metaphorically spread their wings – or roots and boughs in this case – and attain their maximum size, which in turn boosts their carbon storage capacity.
Red mangroves are among the most and least familiar tree species. Familiar in the sense that they are a virtually ubiquitous sight along coastlines throughout the world, taken for granted to the extent that we view them as part of the scenery; unfamiliar in that few people appreciate their crucial importance, not least when it comes to countering climate chaos.
Mangroves sequester and store vast quantities of carbon – estimated by the UN to be over four billion tonnes, equivalent to the combined annual emissions of the US and China – and they do this up to ten times more efficiently than rainforests and other terrestrial treescapes.
Mangrove trees in northern Kenya. Credit: Mwangi Kirubi/TNC
As a species, red mangroves are not threatened with extinction. They are officially designated as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Collectively, however, they have suffered a level of destruction that is nothing short of staggering. Over 20% of the world’s mangroves have been cleared in the past four decades alone. That’s bad news for the climate – mangrove destruction accounts for up to 10% of emissions from global deforestation – and disastrous news for the coastal communities and biodiversity that depend on these natural barriers and wildlife havens.
The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, which has seen over 100 global leaders pledge to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 as part of the high-level negotiations at COP26, has not come a moment too soon, particularly for the world’s mangrove forests.
FFI has been protecting and restoring nature
for well over a century. The landscapes we
protect around the world collectively hold
at least one billion tonnes of carbon, as well
as providing crucial habitat for biodiversity
and life-sustaining services for people.