"Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I."
- "The Two Towers", J.R.R. Tolkien
Elephants are the largest living land animals, weighing up to 7 metric tons. At first sight, they seem impossibly big, and are capable of flattening large trees and stripping them of leaves and bark in minutes. They are voracious foragers with huge ranges, sometimes covering thousands of kilometers in their migrations, all the while clearing wide swathes of forest and brush in their continual search for food. Thus, their effect on the environment is considerable, and they are known as a keystone species, responsible for periodically opening up forests and savannahs so that smaller species can thrive. They are also of importance as seed scatterers, since most seeds pass through the elephant digestive system unharmed. The continual movement of elephant herds creates mosaic patterns of growth capable of sustaining the biodiversity needed for a healthy ecosystem. Their environmental impact is second only to that of humanity.
Elephants are Proboscideans, members of an order that once included some 200 species of mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres and deinotherians. There are two species of elephant - African elephants, of which roughly 400,000 live in sub-Saharan Africa, and Asian elephants, a population of about 35,000 distributed throughout South-East Asia. (The latter species is what used to be known as the Indian elephant, something of a gross misnomer since they are native to at least 12 Asian countries). These two species are the sole survivors of the order Proboscidia. Their closest living relatives, based on the anatomy of their bones and teeth, are the manatees and dugongs. Coincidentally, both of these orders are declining rapidly and are in some danger of extermination.
The most unusual feature of elephant physiology is its peculiar trunk, which has a variety of functions. The source of the name Proboscidia, the trunk is not merely a nose as many people assume. It is actually an extension of the upper lip and the nose. It is most commonly used to grip things, such as branches or tufts of grass. Elephants do not eat or drink through the trunk, but use it to lift food and water to the mouth. By manipulating branches with the trunk, elephants can strip bark and leaves off the branches much like humans eating corn on the cob. The trunk's 'fingers' are very dextrous, capable of manipulating small objects. The trunk is also extremely sensitive to odors and touch, bearing numerous short bristles that appear to be contact sensors similar to cats' whiskers. Finally, the trunk is used for most of the elephant's vocalizations.
Elephant legs and feet are well adapted towards carrying their immense weight. The cylindrical feet bear thick spongy pads that cushion the weight so well that elephants hardly leave any discernable footprints. Elephants cannot jump, but they can sit up quite easily and stand on their hind legs for short periods. They usually do this when foraging amongst tall trees. In addition to not being able to jump, it is widely believed that elephants cannot run, in the technical sense of the word. Although they can certainly walk very fast (speeds up to 45 kph have been reported, but reliable measurements do not exist), they never seem to reach a state where all four feet are in the air.
The tusks of the elephant are enlarged incisors that grow at a rate of roughly 17 cm per year. They are used for many things: debarking trees, digging for water, marking trees and fighting. The trunk is often rested on the tusks, as its weight is considerable. Just as humans can be left- or right-handed, elephants tend to favor a certain tusk.
The elephant's enormous ears are used as cooling surfaces. They are flapped at varying speeds according to temperature.
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE SPECIES:
ASIAN ELEPHANT (Elephas Maximus)
- Subspecies: Sri Lankan (Elephas Maximus Maximus), Mainland (Elephas Maximus Indicus, the original "Indian elephant" subspecies) and Sumatran (Elephas Maximus Sumatranus).
- Asian elephants typically have a shoulder height between 2-3.5 meters, and weigh between 2-5 metric tons. Sexual dimorphism is pronounced, and females are usually half the size of males.
- Asian elephants have five toes on each front foot and four on each hind foot. They have smaller ears than African elephants, and their trunks have a single 'finger'. They tend to be lighter in colour than African elephants.
- Females lack the prominent tusks of the males. Their incisors are known as 'tushes' and are usually rather short, barely clearing the upper lip. Some females do have longer tushes, but they do not reach the same length as the male tusks.
- Genetically, Asian elephants are very different from Africans. They are actually more closely related to mammoths than to African elephants.
AFRICAN ELEPHANT (Loxodonta Africana)
- Subspecies: Savannah (Loxodonta Africana Africana) and Forest (Loxodonta Africana Cyclotis).
- Shoulder height ranges from 2-4 meters. Weight ranges from 2-7 metric tons.
- African elephants are notably larger than the Asian species, and have larger ears. Their backs are straighter as well, and their trunks have two 'fingers'. They have four toes on each front foot and three on each rear foot.
- Both sexes have tusks larger than those of Asian elephants, and there is typically little difference between male and female tusks. African elephant teeth have fewer, coarser ridges than the Asian types, hence the species name "Loxodonta".
SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND LIFE CYCLE:
Elephants live in complex matriarchal societies. Herd leaders are always elder females. Most herds consist of only females and young elephants, and usually have up to 20 members. When herds grow too large, they split into separate groups, which maintain contact via infrasound vocalizations. Adult males tend to be solitary, joining herds only during mating periods. During this time, the males compete for breeding rights.
Communication between members of a herd is a combination of sounds, chemical signals and gestures. Their voices are very low, and most elephant calls are pitched too low for humans to hear (infrasound). The bond between members of a herd is one of the closest family bonds in the animal kingdom. Elephant mothers are highly protective of their young, but other members of the herd will substitute for a mother if she leaves for any period of time. If a young elephant falls behind the herd while foraging, the entire herd will stop to wait for it. Likewise, if a juvenile becomes distressed, several members of the herd will rush to assist it, regardless of blood ties. Interestingly, elephants will actually assist each other during childbirth, with an older female acting as a midwife.
The life span of an elephant is around 70 years. They usually reach puberty after 13-14 years, and reproduce every 2.5-4 years, giving birth to a single calf after 630-660 days (the longest gestation period any land animal). In some rare cases, twins are born. Most elephants continue reproducing until about fifty years old.
The close bonds and communication between elephants are also displayed in their reactions to the death of other elephants. When a herd encounters a dead elephant, the herd will stop for a period and investigate the carcass, prodding it with feet and trunks for a long time. When a baby elephant dies, its mother will grieve at its side for several days, preventing even the other members of the herd from approaching it.
IVORY AND THE FATE OF THE ELEPHANT:
Although elephants have been used extensively for warfare, ceremonial purposes, and as circus performers, their main role in history has been as a source of ivory. Until recently, ivory was one of the most coveted luxury materials on Earth, and elephants were the only significant source. The ivory trade had major, largely negative, effects on African history, and disastrous effects on elephant populations. As late as 1979, the African elephant population was estimated at 1.3-1.5 million. Today there are probably no more than 400,000.
From 1979 onward, the ivory trade has been restricted, but the killing of elephants continued in catastrophic numbers up until 1989, when major grassroots campaigns to save the elephants made ivory prices plummet. To emphasize the importance of stopping the ivory trade, Kenyan officials burned 2500 elephant tusks - roughly three million dollars worth of tusks that had been seized from poachers over a four-year period - in a bonfire that was shown on television throughout the world. The message was clear and the campaign remarkably successful: immediately after the broadcast, ivory prices dropped from $120 per pound to $4 per pound, and shortly afterwards CITES called for a complete ban on ivory. However, in 1997 CITES once again approved limited trade with Japan, possibly believing the elephant populations had stabilized, and under pressure from several African countries to allow the trading of stockpiled ivory as a form of economic aid. As soon as the ban was lifted, poaching increased catastrophically, and enormous numbers of elephants were illegally killed. Worldwide, customs agents seized 17,000 kg of illegal ivory in 1998-89, and this has been estimated as no more than 20% of the total illegal ivory moved during those years. CITES 2000 again called for a complete ban on the ivory trade pending a reassessment in November 2002.
It may, however, be too late to save the elephant. Poaching continues to this day on a somewhat smaller scale, coupled with a new threat from extreme habitat reduction. As humans continue to spread throughout elephant territories, elephants are increasingly found in conflict with them, raiding human crops, damaging property and disrupting communities. Due to the enormous territory a herd of elephants requires, the isolated protected areas currently set aside for them are unlikely to be enough to sustain them, and it is difficult for communities with "elephant problems" to raise money to help translocate the herds. These preserves are not usually enclosed areas - they are open to elephants and humans alike. The elephants frequently wander out of them in their foraging and migrations, and human poachers can easily get at the herds no matter where they are.
Another significant factor in elephant protection is the fact that herds cannot be thinned by single units like many other species, for the elephants have such close relationships that any surviving younger elephants become traumatized by the killings (and will, reportedly, spread the news to other herds, causing further trauma). Therefore, when culling takes place, entire families are killed.
A number of groups are currently working to help keep the elephant from extinction. Currently most of their efforts concentrate on protecting the herds from poachers, research into the elephants' movement patterns, public awareness campaigns to reduce the illegal ivory trade, and fundraising to assist in elephant translocation. As things stand today, translocation is often the only effective way to sustain elephant populations, since herds confined to small spaces tend to overgraze, destroying their habitats. This can be prevented by periodically moving the herds to new areas, often across national borders, but the cost is often prohibitive. A more effective measure would be the creation of transnational protected areas, linking the parks and preserves to allow the elephants to migrate freely. This would, of course, be a major undertaking, and to date there is only one such transnational preserve.
That said, the illegal ivory trade is still at least as much of a threat as habitat reduction, so I would like to close with a personal plea - don't buy ivory. At all. Whether it is a cameo pendant from Thailand, a tiny figurine bought in a Cairo boutique or a domino set made in Hong Kong, it's illegal and it was made by killing one of the most intelligent, important and altogether magnificent animals on Earth. You may be told that the pieces are antique, or that the ivory comes from stockpiles, culled animals or elephants that died of natural causes. In almost all cases, these are lies. Most antique ivory pieces are lying in museums or private collections, the stockpiles are all still stockpiled pending the November 2002 CITES meeting, and for every elephant that is culled or dies a natural death, a dozen or more elephants have been killed by poachers. In any case, it is 100% illegal to transport even 'legitimate' ivory across international borders. Even legitimate (sometimes advertised as 'pre-ban') ivory that never crosses a border only serves to encourage the poaching. It isn't worth it.
SOURCES AND FURTHER REFERENCE:
- "The Sixth Extinction", Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, 1995