Elephants have long held a fascination for human beings, not only for their impressive size, but also for their remarkable intelligence, demonstrated by their communication habits, mourning rituals and deep sense of family ties. Elephants have even been used in ancient cultures as symbols for good luck, prosperity and fertility.
There are two main elephant species still in existence today. These are the African Elephant (further divided into the African Bush and African Forest elephants) and the Asian Elephant. These differ somewhat in appearance. The African Elephant is considerably bigger than its Asian counterpart, as are its ears. The back is concave, while the Asian Elephant’s back is flat or rounded. Similarly, the Asian Elephant’s stomach is saggy and rounded, while the African’s usually extends straight across, with no curvature. Only the Asian male is likely to have external tusks, while both males and females of the African species sport these valuable features. The Asian Elephants are hairier. The shape of their heads is another distinguishing factor. Asian Elephants have a dent in the top of their heads when looking at them head-on, resembling a heart shape, while African Elephants’ heads are rounded with no indentation.
Elephants feed only on vegetation as they are herbivorous. They eat a large variety of plants in astounding quantities, sometimes decimating the flora of a confined region. When feeding, an elephant will consume the entire plant, including its bark, roots and twigs. An elephant will consume up to 300 kilograms every day, spending more than half the day in pursuit of vegetation. However, it does not digest much of this volume, excreting approximately 60% of it in a relatively untouched form. This aids with seed dispersal and the distribution of plant species, as these beasts travel several kilometres during any given day.
Elephants maintain a strict social structure and adhere to formal life cycles. Theirs is a matriarchal society, with the herds being made up of and lead by females. The matriarch is usually the oldest and largest elephant, while her immediate family herd comprises of daughters, nieces and sisters. Juvenile males will begin spending less and less time with their mothers and aunts as they enter their teenage years. Eventually, these ones will roam alone, or in a bachelor pod of one or two other young males in search of mates and food. Elephants are social creatures and, although they travel and live with their family herd, their social circle extends to other families, herds and clans. When a herd becomes too large to manage, some of the females will branch off with the strongest of their group to form another herd of the same family. These bonds are maintained despite physical distance. Within the herd, the relationship amongst the females is remarkable as they assist one another with new calves, warn each other of danger and mourn the death of a herd member together.
Elephant cows reach sexual maturity and begin to breed at about 13 years of age. Males are older and, if she chooses well, stronger and larger too. The gestation period lasts for 22 months, after which a calf weighing almost 120 kilograms is born. Like humans, elephants are not born with natural survival instincts and need to be taught these by their mothers and other female guardians. Their childhood therefore lasts longer as they remain close to their herd, learning and being trained. The mother will not give birth for at least another 2.5 years, giving her time to train her baby sufficiently. Adolescence is the period between the time of the baby’s weaning up to about 13 to 17 years of age, when sexual maturity is reached (differing for young males and females). After this maturing, the elephant is considered to be an adult, breeding until about 50 years of age. Most elephants reach an impressive age of over 70.
Elephants are incredibly intelligent, a fact that continues to astound researchers as they discover more and more about these animals. Elephants can communicate with one another, using a variety of techniques, over many kilometres of even dense bush. Their insight into the family structure, tragedy and joy is remarkable, and they are frequently found celebrating the birth of a new one or mourning the death of a loved one in a way never before seen in animals.
Unfortunately, due to the value of their ivory tusks as well as the ever-shrinking area being assigned to these roaming beasts, the elephant populations around the world are severely threatened. Poaching has been banned in many lands, but the demand for ivory products outweighs legislation in many cases. The development of forests, bush and even arid areas means that elephants have less space in which to roam and feed. The food they have available does not have time to regenerate and they are quickly running out of sustenance.
Elephants are unique, not only in their impressive dimensions, but also in their insight into and understanding of emotions, their ability to sympathise, empathise and celebrate. It is vital that this important species be preserved and protected within their natural habitats so that they may continue to add to the world’s natural wonders and humble us by their acumen.
Here is the Wikipedia page on elephants: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant
Here is the The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee: http://www.elephants.com/