have been on the Earth
since the Eocene period, in one form or another, in other words,
at least 65 million years. Of course their physiology
has changed considerably since then. For instance their best-known
feature, the trunk, did not evolve until 40 million years ago.
Mammoths were the largest of the elephant family – they
were the tallest and possessed the largest trunks and tusks.
They were also the ancestors of both modern species of
elephant is classified on its own in a group called Proboscidea.
Its closest relative is a small African rodent called a
hyrax, which is only six inches tall! The elephant has a large
sized head in relation to its body, and the skin is tough and
wrinkled. The trunk is the most unique part of the elephant.
It is an extension of the upper lip, and is invaluable
to the animal, which is able to use it for two of the senses,
namely touch and smell, as well as for breathing. It
is also used for drinking by sucking water in and then expelling
it into its mouth, or expelling it over its body to cool down.
It is used to make sounds and an angry trumpeting is
very loud and frightening. It is amazing how dextrous
the trunk is in collecting leaves off trees and pulling up grass.
No wonder that the elephant keeps it entirely out of harm's
way when fighting, and feels totally lost when it is injured!
are also unusual in that their teeth grow throughout their life.
The first teeth appear at the age of three months, and
they are then replaced five times during their life, with the
final tooth being 14 inches long. Because their teeth
are replaced at regular intervals, it is a useful way of estimating
age. However, the elephant will starve to death once
the final teeth are worn down, since they cannot chew the food
successfully. Elephants eat about 4% of their body weight
per day, on average 270 kgs.
are able to give birth at 18 years and can have an infant every
three to four years after this. The calf is born after
a gestation period of 23 months, and is already three feet tall
and weighs 130 kgs. There is invariably another female
standing by who acts as a midwife during the birth, something
that does not occur in most other animal species. The
baby suckles for up to two years, but it does not use its trunk;
it suckles with its mouth.
female calf will remain with its mother and sisters, and the
male calf will stay with the family unit until it is about 14
yeas old and will then leave to lead a solitary life until it
reaches sexual maturity at about 20 years. However, it will
usually not be able to get the opportunity to mate with a cow
(female elephant) until it is much older and larger. Size appears
to be a critical factor in deciding accessibility to females,
as the larger bulls (male elephants) can intimidate the younger
males and prevent them from mating. As elephants continue
to grow throughout their lives, it is invariably the older males
that have the grater chance of mating. When a bull is
at the height of its sexual power it secretes a liquid from
a gland near the eyes and can become unpredictable and aggressive.
This condition, known as ‘musth', was previously only
thought to be confined to the Indian species, but it now seems
the African elephant goes through a similar behaviour.
are two separate species of elephant, the African and Indian,
with both being divided up into different subspecies, depending
on habitat use and the area they inhabit. The African
species Loxodonta africana is a larger animal, and
can weigh up to six tons. They are found in all types
of habitat, from mountains to desert, from savannah to tropical
rainforest. The usual social unit consist of a female
with her young, with two or more family units joining up to
form a herd unit.
ear lobes of the elephant are used for cooling its body and
the African's are larger than the Indian. The African's
trunk has two lips at the end, in contrast to the Indian's,
which has only one. The Indian is more rotund in shape,
and lacks the hollow in the back that the African has. Strangely,
the Indian tends to live longer, and they have a long history
of being trained by humans to perform tasks, such as log collecting.
Indian feeds mostly on grass, but the African is more varied
in its taste and will eat leaves, bark and other types of vegetation.
elephant's feet have 5 toes, though the number of nails can
vary with 4 or 5 on the front feet and 3 to 5 on the back.
The sole is spongy, allowing the animal to walk almost silently.
two tusks are merely long molar teeth. Some sub-species,
notably the Ceylon elephant do not have tusks, and Indian elephant's
are smaller than the African's. The tusks are not ornamental;
they are used to feel with, to dig for water, to push over trees
and for fighting. The tusks first appear at about three
to four years old, and then grow at a rate of about 9-10cm a
year. The largest tusks that have been found were on
an African bull and weighed 107kgs. Because poachers
target the larger elephants for ivory, the weight of individual
tusks has decreased and the average tusk size dropped to 13kgs
in 1970 and to 3kgs in 1985.
has been a long tradition of ivory trading, but the numbers
of elephants being killed did not become uncontrollable until
the start of the 1970's when the price of ivory increased dramatically.
Thus the incentive to kill elephants illegally increased, which
led to decreased elephant populations, a lower yield of ivory
and this consequently raised the price of ivory again.
is an international regulatory body for the trade in endangered
wildlife called CITES.
When this was first established in 1976, the Indian elephant
was placed on Appendix 1, meaning it was given full protection
and trade was prohibited in its products, because the total
population was only around 35,000. However, because the African
population was then estimated at 1.5 million animals, it was
not given any protection until 1989 when the total population
had dropped to around 600,000. It is probably less than
isn't the only threat to elephants. As the human population
of Africa increases, more land is taken from the elephant.
They are being confined to smaller areas and natural migration
is being curtailed.
has destroyed much elephant habitat in Asia.
are the flagships of conservation of land mammals. They need
a large territory, and if you protect elephants you protect
many other species.
are gardeners of Africa. They are browsers and so do not graze
the vegetation in one place until there is nothing left, like
cows and sheep. They knock down trees (which like all living
things, have a lifespan) making room for young trees to germinate
and grow and coppice trees to sprout. Their dung contains
seeds – some of which will only germinate if they pass through
an elephant's gut. The dung beetle lays its eggs in the dung
and buries it, containing seed, about 1 or 2 feet below ground
– ideal for germination as well as the beetle's eggs.
knock down mopane trees, which sprout as brush available to
tracks open up thicket and forest to other species.
with their weight, make water holes.
than preserve the Status Quo, we should preserve ecological
processes (i.e., population fluctuations that vary with food
problems have been caused by man sinking bore holes to provide
water in reserves, which then encourages the increase in numbers
of elephants to a point where there is not enough vegetation
during a period of drought.
are now many areas that have too few elephants or none – areas
suitable for translocation from areas where there may be local
over-abundance. For example, the death of browsers like elephant
and giraffe in Maasai Territory in northern Tanzania has allowed
thicket to spread and drastically reduce grassland, and this
in turn reduces fodder for Maasai cattle.