The word Elephant in latin (as ‘ele’ and ‘phant’) means the ‘Huge Arch’. Most elephants live in the grasslands of Africa and in the forests of Asia although elephants can live in nearly any habitat that has adequate quantities of food and water. Elephants live in groups called ‘herds’. The herd is usually made up of ten females and their young.
All of the females in the herd are directly related to the matriarch, who is typically the oldest and largest female. There are two species of elephant – the African elephant and the Asian elephant. The African is the larger of the two and weighs up to 6 tons. Regardless of where elephants live, their social behaviours and social structures remain largely the same. The African elephant and the Asian elephant are the only two surviving species of what was in prehistoric times a diverse and populous group of large mammals. While Asian elephants and African elephants have a lot in common, they differ slightly in appearance and each faces different threats to its survival.
The elephant is the largest animal that lives on land. Elephants are warm-bloodied mammals and members of the ‘Pachyderm’ species which means ‘thick-skinned animals’. Elephants form the family ‘Elephantidae’. Male elephants can grow to be 13 feet tall. That is more than twice as tall as 2 tall human beings. Elephants can weigh as much as a single decker bus – between 10 and 14 thousand pounds.
Elephants are amazing creatures. They cry, play, laugh and have incredible memories. Elephants are sensitive to fellow animals where even if a baby elephant complains, the entire family of elephants will rumble and go over to touch and care for it.
Male elephants beyond the age of maturity are with the herd only during mating. Herds have been known to travel ten miles or more to look for food and water. When elephants travel, they walk very quietly in single file. Young elephants (calves) are led by the older elephants with their tails. Elephant calves stay close to their mothers at all times. The entire herd will protect the young ones if there is any sign of danger. A herd ambles along at about 4 miles per hour and can charge at more than 25 miles per hour. Elephants cannot run or jump. They can however, walk very fast and climb.
Elephants smell, drink, eat and wash themselves with their long trunks. Elephants have tusks that are long teeth made of ivory. Their tusks help them get food and carry heavy objects. All elephants do not have tusks. Only the male Asian elephants have tusks whereas the male and female African elephants both have tusks.
Elephants love water and are very good swimmers. When elephants get hot, they swim in lakes or rivers, or give themselves showers using their long trunks. An elephant can also cool off by rolling in a shady bed of mud.
Elephants can swim considerable distances. In deep water they hold their trunks above the water like periscopes. Elephants also use their trunks to trumpet.
Elephants can live to be a good age. On average, an elephant lives between 50 and 70 years although the oldest living elephant was recorded to have reached 82 years old. His name was ‘Raja’ and he lived in captivity in Sri Lanka.
The closest relatives to the elephant are the Hyraxes and Sea Cows (dugongs and manatees). Elephants are also related to Horses, Tapirs and Rhinos.
An elephant spends around 16 hours a day eating, drinking, bathing, dusting, wallowing, playing and 3 – 5 hours resting. As an elephant only digests some 40 percent of what it eats, it needs a tremendous amount of vegetation (approximately 5 percent of its body weight per day) and about 30 to 50 gallons of water. A young elephant must learn how to draw water up into its trunk and then pour it into its mouth. Elephants eat an extremely varied vegetarian diet, including grass, leaves, twigs, bark, fruit and seed pods. Favoured foods include: Bananas, bamboo, berries, mangoes, coconuts, corn, jungle shrubs, palm fruits, sugar cane, wood apples and wild rice.
Elephants eat grass, small branches and bark from trees. Elephants especially like leaves from the top branches. They get the leaves by pushing down the trees with their large heads and bodies, then they get the bark by scraping it with their sharp tusks.
Salt is essential and an elephant shows a distinct liking for it. Cold climates can cause an elephant to have stomach aches. Some elephants will even peel fruit before eating. The holy Thai white elephant is very particular about eating and will not consume any food that has fallen on the ground and will not eat with the rest of the herd. The fibrous content of their food and the great quantities consumed makes for large volumes of dung.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the African elephant is listed as a threatened species and the Asian elephant is listed as an endangered species. ‘Endangered’ means a species is considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and ‘threatened’ means a species is considered in danger of becoming endangered.