Some elephants consume too much plastic in their diet

Some Asian elephants are a little shy about their eating habits. They sneak into dumpsites near human settlements at the edge of their ...


Some Asian elephants are a little shy about their eating habits. They sneak into dumpsites near human settlements at the edge of their forest habitats and quickly gobble up trash – plastic utensils, wrappers and all. But their guilty pleasure for fast food is traveling with them – elephants carry plastic and other human waste deep into the forests of parts of India.

“When they defecate, the plastic comes out of the feces and settles in the forest,” said Gitanjali Katlam, an ecology researcher in India.

While much research has been conducted on the spread of plastics from human pollution in the world’s oceans and seas, much less is known about how this waste moves with terrestrial wildlife. But elephants are important seed dispersers, and research published this month in the Journal for Nature Conservation shows that the same process that keeps ecosystems functioning could transport human-made pollutants into national parks and other wilderness areas. This plastic could have negative health effects for elephants and other species that have consumed the material once it has passed through the digestive systems of large mammals.

Dr Katlam first noticed elephants feeding on trash on trail cameras during his PhD. work at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She was studying which animals visited garbage dumps on the outskirts of villages in northern India. At the time, she and her colleagues also noticed plastic in elephant droppings. With the Natural Science Initiativea non-profit organization focused on ecological research in northern India, Dr. Katlam and his colleagues collected dung from elephants in the state of Uttarakhand.

The researchers found plastic in all the excrement near the village dumps and in the forest near the town of Kotdwar. They only walked a mile or two into the forest looking for droppings, but the elephants likely carried the plastic much further, Dr Katlam said. Asian elephants take about 50 hours to feed and can walk 10 to 20 km per day. In the case of Kotdwar, this is of concern as the town is only a few kilometers from a national park.

“This adds evidence that plastic pollution is ubiquitous,” said Agustina Malizia, an independent researcher with Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, who was not involved in this research but studied the effects of plastic on terrestrial ecosystems. She says the study is “extremely needed” because it could be one of the first reports of a very large land animal ingesting plastic.

Plastic made up 85% of the litter found in Kotdwar’s elephant dung. The bulk came from food containers and cutlery, followed by plastic bags and packaging. But the researchers also found glass, rubber, fabric and other trash. Dr Katlam said the elephants were probably looking for containers and plastic bags as they still had leftover food inside. The utensils were probably eaten in the process.

As waste passes through their digestive system, elephants can ingest chemicals like polystyrene, polyethylene, bisphenol A and phthalates. It’s unclear what damage these substances can cause, but Dr Katlam fears they could contribute to declining elephant numbers and survival rates.

“Other animals know their stomachs can fill with plastic, causing mechanical damage,” said Carolina Monmany Garzia, who works with Dr. Malizia in Argentina and was not involved in Dr. Katlam’s study.

Other animals can again consume the plastic once it is transported into the forest through elephant droppings. “It has a cascading effect,” Dr. Katlam said.

Dr Katlam said Indian governments should take steps to manage their solid waste to avoid such problems. But individuals can also help by separating their food waste from the containers so the plastic doesn’t end up being eaten so much by accident.

“It’s a very simple step, but a very important step,” she said.

“We need to realize and understand how the overuse of plastics affects the environment and the organisms that inhabit them,” Dr Mealizia said.

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