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Elephant Fact Sheet

Elephants 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.

The 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!


Elephants 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.


Females 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.


The 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.


There 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.



The 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.  



The Indian feeds mostly on grass, but the African is more varied in its taste and will eat leaves, bark and other types of vegetation.  



The 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.




The 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.



There 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.


There 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 400,000 today.


Elephants and ecosystems

Poaching 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.


Deforestation has destroyed much elephant habitat in Asia.


Elephants are the flagships of conservation of land mammals. They need a large territory, and if you protect elephants you protect many other species.


Elephants 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.


Elephants knock down mopane trees, which sprout as brush available to smaller species.


Elephant tracks open up thicket and forest to other species.


Elephants, with their weight, make water holes.


Rather than preserve the Status Quo, we should preserve ecological processes (i.e., population fluctuations that vary with food supply).


Many 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.


There 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.