Some Asian elephants are a little shy about their eating habits. They sneak into dumps near human settlements at the edges of their forest habitats and quickly gobble up garbage — plastic utensils, packaging and all. But their guilty pleasure for fast food is traveling with them — elephants are transporting plastic and other human garbage deep into forests in parts of India.
“When they defecate, the plastic comes out of the dung and gets deposited in the forest,” said Gitanjali Katlam, an ecological researcher in India.
While a lot of research has been conducted on the spread of plastics from human pollution into the world’s oceans and seas, considerably less is known about how such waste moves with wildlife on land. 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 might carry human-made pollutants into national parks and other wild areas. This plastic could have negative effects on the health of elephants and other species that have consumed the material once it has passed through the large mammals’ digestive systems.
Dr. Katlam first noticed elephants feeding on garbage on trail cameras during her Ph.D. work at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She was studying which animals visited garbage dumps at the edge of villages in northern India. At the time, she and her colleagues also noticed plastic in the elephants’ dung. With the Nature Science Initiative, a nonprofit focused on ecological research in northern India, Dr. Katlam and her colleagues collected elephant dung in Uttarakhand state.