Friday, December 3, 2010

The Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus)

When you come across an elephant in the wild, or otherwise, you won’t need a book to tell you that it is the largest land mammal walking the earth in our era. Their height, weight and strength are almost legendary. Elephants were used by Asian Empires to gain battle superiority. The Kings used them as carriers of nobility. The common man used them for tasks requiring massive feats of strength, like transporting timber.

The elephant was, and to some extent still is, an integral part of this area, especially in India. Elephants have been around for almost 40 million years now. Although, their appearance has evolved to almost unrecognizable proportions in order to adapt to changing environment conditions. The original ancestor of the elephant, known to man, was the Moeritherium. It stood only around 3.5 feet tall and did not have a pronounced trunk like the one we immediately associate with the mention of an elephant. Due to migrations from one area, caused by adverse conditions created there, to other areas with more suitable but different conditions made the ancestors evolve over this long period of time to what we now recognize as the modern day elephant. In this transition stage, the more well known intermediate ascendants after the "little Moeritherium", were the mammoths and the mastodons. The main changes brought about in these species by evolution was in the over all size, the development of the proboscis (or trunk) and the increase in length of the seconds pair of teeth on the upper jaw (tusks). At this point of time, the elephant species is represented by two kinds. The Asian and The African.

The Asian and the African elephants are similar in general appearance but there are a few definite differences. A list of these differences is given below:

Asian Elephant

African Elephant


Average 2 feet shorter (9-10 feet)

Average 2 feet taller (11-12 feet)


Average 2000 pounds lighter

Average 2000 pounds heavier

(can weigh over 8 tons)


Rounded with slight hump in the middle

Have a dip in the middle



Larger and in the shape of the African continent. A pair can weigh up to 110 pounds


Consists of two domes

Consists of a single dome


Developed only in males. Female tusks too small to be visible outside

Developed in both male and female


Shorter and stockier



Has one "finger" at the tip

Has two "fingers" at the tip


Claimed to be stronger

Not as powerful as the Asian elephant, despite it’s larger size.

General Appearance

Shorter and rounder

Taller and slimmer

The elephant is unique in a couple of characteristics. It is an animal that lives longer in captivity and is also the only domesticated animal, which preferably is taken from the wild for sounder temperament. The average life expectancy of an elephant in the wild is 60 – 70 years, whereas it is around 70 – 80 years in domesticated ones. In the final stages of it’s life, the longevity of it’s life depends on it’s teeth. Elephants go through 6 sets of molars during their life span. The first set of teeth is pushed out by the new set at the age of 2. It is the fourth set at the age of 20 – 25 that is their first set of adult teeth. They get their last set around the age of 60. Once this last set wears out and the elephant can no longer eat, it dies.

Domesticating elephants is an expensive proposition because an elephant in the wild eats approximately 300 pounds of vegetation a day. It’s domesticated counter parts are known to eat even more. It consumes a whopping average of 300 liters of water a day, taking in approximately 60 to 80 liters in a single drink.

Another unique and amusing characteristic of elephants is that, despite their huge size and immense weight, their walk can be compared to the dance of a ballerina. Believe it or not but elephants walk on their toes! The heels are elevated with the five digits coming down at a steep angle. Under the heel is a larger cushioning pad of gristle, which other than relieving stress on the bones also allows the animal to be extremely surefooted and silent while walking. The entire "foot" is enclosed in a cylindrical shape and the external toenails are only superficial. It is possible for the number of nails to be different from the number of toes. It can also attain speeds up to 40 kilometers per hour on these feet.

The most prominent evolvement in elephants, except the increase in size, is the development of the trunk. The trunk other than being the nose is also the upper lip of the elephant’s mouth. The trunk is a highly efficient tool that consists of 40,000 muscles and tendons having the strength to tear down a tree and yet be nimble enough to pick up a matchbox. The "fingers" at the tip of the trunks enables them to grasp objects they need to left or break off. These trunks also make excellent snorkels for elephants while crossing deep rivers and lakes. Elephants are excellent swimmers. The other evolvement of a pair of teeth into tusks enables it to dig for water, roots, etc other than using them as weapons in a conflict.

The maximum weight is concentrated in the head
The tusks can grow extremely long and heavy. The record length of an African elephant’s tusks extended up to 11 feet 5.5 inches. The heaviest tusks recorded to date, also on an African elephant, weighed a total of 465 pounds. The left tusk was 10 feet 2.5 inches and weighed 240 pounds. The right tusk measured 10 feet 5.5 inches and weighed 225 pounds. The largest and tallest elephant records also come from Africa. The tallest measured 14.5 feet at the shoulders while in a reclining position and weighed 8.8 tons.

The largest measured 13.8 feet but weighed in at 13.5 tons! Some Asian elephants are close to these tusk dimensions but are definitely smaller and shorter by quite a margin.

Due to the size and strength of elephants, they obviously have very few natural enemies. There have been recorded instances of altercations between elephants and tigers but these are rare. One such famous incident is written about in Jim Corbett’s memoirs where two tigers took on the wrath of a tusker in a duel that lasted for many hours through the night. Another more recent incident is supposed to have occurred in Corbett National Park in India, where a crazed female elephant took on a fight with a tiger that had just killed it’s baby. The battle quite uniquely and amazingly ended in the death of all three animals. This lack of natural enemies is good for the elephant because of it’s life cycle. An elephant bears a child only once in approximately 3 – 4 years, although it can conceive from the age of 10 – 15 years till 60. The gestation period also is an extremely long 19 – 21 months, a record in itself. Due to these various factors, there can only be a very slow increase in the overall population, even if the species may be flourishing. The Asian elephant does have one advantage over it’s African cousin while facing one of it’s most dangerous enemies, Man. The absence of tusks of any consequence in female Asian elephants ensures that they are not targets for ivory poachers.

The presence of elephants in an area is a clear indication that the ecosystem there is flourishing. Due to their voracious appetites and large requirement of water to quench their thirst and also to bathe, elephants cannot live in desolate barren areas. Although an exception to this are some elephants living in desert surroundings close to the Skeleton Coast in Africa.

As elephants need to consume a lot of vegetation to satisfy their diet for a day, they are eating through most of it. They have a pretty fixed daily routine, which begins a couple of hours before sunrise. They begin by feeding at this time until the day begins to warm up, which is when they head for a shaded resting place. Elephants rest in a standing position or while reclining on their side. Once the heat of the day has passed by, they move out from these sheltered areas once again to feed. This meal continues till around midnight after which they move back to catch a few hours of sleep before repeating the cycle again.

Elephants live in a matriarchal society. The head of the family is usually an old female who is normally also the largest. Families usually consist of 3 –10 individuals, although many families come together during migrations to form very large herds. These herds sometimes number more than 60 animals. The families consist of cousin sisters, nieces, daughters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers and sub-adult males. The young are looked after and cared for by all the mature females and not just by the mother. The sub-adult males are expelled from the family when they are nearing adulthood. This is probably nature’s way of preventing inbreeding to keep a healthy race going. These expelled males mostly become solitary wanderers, although they have occasionally been known to congregate and form bachelor groups. These bull elephants are known for their more volatile temperament, especially at a time when a secretion is produced from their temporal glands. These are called "musth". In this phase, they have been known to cause a lot of damage to life and property. During the female mating cycle, bachelors join up with families and herds. They stay with them until the female’s cycle ends, which is usually a period of 10 – 15 days. During this period, face-offs and fights over females and territory are common among bulls in the same area. The breeding period is during the summer months.

Elephants make up for poor eyesight with excellent smelling and hearing powers
Elephants have poor eyesight but compensate for this with extremely good smelling and hearing powers. Their ears have another function other than hearing. This function is very similar to that of a radiator is a car. The ears are a maze of criss-crossing arteries carrying blood through them. Due to the thinner skin of the ears and the spread out surface area, they are more easily cooled, especially by fanning them.
This in turn also cools the blood passing through them, which brings down the temperature of the rest of the body. Elephants have a hide, which is more than an inch thick but is still extremely sensitive. It is to protect this skin that elephants have frequent baths, sometimes 3 –4 in a day, and then cover themselves with an armor of mud. This armor protects them from insects, skin diseases, sunburns and skin dehydration. This also helps keep their bodies cool in the warmer months. The brain of elephants is quite well developed and, although not as legendary as some tales claim it to be, they do have a good memory. It is due to this well developed brain and intelligence that elephants taken from the wild can be trained and domesticated.

The Asian elephant is found in India, Thailand, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, Vietnam and Kampuchea. The total population in this area is approximately 20,000. The Indian elephant is found in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam.

In India, the elephant is a revered animal. It is a part of Indian mythology and religion. For the protection of these magnificent animals, the government set up a project in 1991 – 92 called "Project Elephant". The main aims and objectives of this project are:

To create and implement policies and strategies to compensate for the livelihood lost of craftsmen involved earlier in the now banned trade of ivory products.
To educate people about the importance of the elephant in the ecosystem and to bring back the compassionate reverence for them.
To create policies and strategies for the protection of elephants from poaching and other threats.
To protect the habitat of the elephant which is under constant stress and threat from mankind invasion.
To protect, and if required create, transitional natural corridors used by elephants between habitats during their periods of migration.

To sort out man-elephant conflicts. Especially for people living in areas close to the natural habitats of these animals.
To ensure coordination at all levels in the effort to protect elephants and their habitats.
To create infrastructure and facilities, including manpower training for the purpose of this project. These trainings include specialisation required in the fields of veterinary, translocation and tranquilising methods.
To improve the welfare of elephants in domestic use.
In general, to ensure the survival and protection of the presently healthy population of Indian elephants.

The initially recognised reserves under this project :-

Silent Valley,
and Rajaji.

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