The elephant is the largest living land mammal. Two species exist in Africa, the savannah and the forest, and one in Asia. A male Asian elephant measures 8m from trunk to tail, stands 3m high at the shoulder and weighs up to 5 tonnes. A male African elephant can measure 9m long, 4m high and weigh 6 tones, as much as 5 cars or 80 people!
Living things can be organised into different groups. Species that are alike are grouped together. This is called classification.
Species: Elephas maximus (Asian)
An Asian elephant has a hump-shaped back and smaller ears. Male Asian tusks are very small, while Asian females have no tusks at all. There are three Asian sub-species: Indian, Sri Lankan and Sumatran.
The intelligent elephant can adapt its behaviour and plan ahead. Elephants have intricate social lives, remarkable memories and a defined culture passed through generations. Sick family members are cared for and dead relatives appear to be mourned.
Some 35,000 Asian elephants are found in India and 12 other countries in SE Asia. There have been drastic population declines due to the ivory trade and habitat loss, and elephants are extinct in many parts of their former range.
Elephants need a large ‘home range’ to find enough food and water, and will follow ‘elephant paths’ to migrate from one area to another. Asian elephants generally live in forests.
Elephants are herbivores (plant-eaters) with massive appetites, and feed 75% of their time, eating up to 200kg a day. They eat grass, leaves, twigs and bark. Elephants act as ‘nature’s gardeners’, dispersing undigested plant seeds through their dung.
An elephant’s versatile trunk can pick up food, touch and greet other elephants, and draw up water (225 litres each day!). Big ears are flapped to keep cool, strong molar teeth grind up food, and rumbling calls – too low for human ears – allow long distance communication.
Elephants are a ‘keystone species’ and help maintain their ecosystem. They create vital pathways and knock over trees allowing smaller species to feed. In droughts they dig down to underground waters supplies.
Elephants feed, rest, travel and play in their close-knit family herd, which is led by a dominant older female called a ‘matriarch’. Using information passed on by her mother, she guides and protects the family, which consists of her sisters, daughters, cousins and their calves. The matriarch’s knowledge of the home range and traditional water sources is vital.
Elephants have a 70 year life span and mature around 12 years. Bull elephants live outside the family herd and mating takes place after courtship. Pregnancy lasts 22 months and at birth the mother is often helped by an experienced female ‘midwife’. The 100kg newborn calf relies on its mother’s milk for up to four years and is cherished by the entire herd.