Elephants

Intelligent Giants of the Wild

Have you ever wondered about the most fascinating creatures on our planet? Well, let us tell you about elephants—these giants have captured the imagination of humans for centuries. From their impressive size to their intelligence and social behavior, there is so much to learn about these majestic animals!

Did you know that elephants have been around for millions of years? Their earliest known ancestor appeared about 55 million years ago, and the first true elephants appeared around 5 million years ago. Until recently, we had two main species of elephants: African and Asian. However, African elephants are now recognized as two distinct species: savanna (or bush) and forest elephants.

African elephants are the largest land animals on earth, growing up to 9–13 feet (3–4 meters) tall and weighing 5,500–15,500 pounds (2,500–7,000 kilograms). Asian elephants are slightly smaller, typically growing up to 6.5–10 feet (2–3 meters) tall and weighing 5,500–12,000 pounds (2,250–5,500 kilograms).

From top left to right: the African savanna (bush) elephant, the Asian elephant, and the African forest elephant

From top left to right: the African savanna (bush) elephant, the Asian elephant, and the African forest elephant

Distribution of living elephant species

Distribution of living elephant species

African elephants also stand out with their significantly larger ears, which resemble the shape of their native continent. On the other hand, Asian elephants’ ears are said to resemble the Indian subcontinent.

But it’s not just their size that makes elephants so impressive. Their brains, weighing around 11 pounds (5 kilograms), are the largest of any land animal, about three times heavier than the human brain. Moreover, their trunks, scientifically known as the proboscis, are more than just long, flexible appendages. These trunks, a fusion of the nose and upper lip, contain over 150,000 muscles and tendons and can lift weights of up to 770 pounds (350 kilograms).

Newborn elephant discovers its trunk

Newborn elephant discovers its trunk

But the real power of the trunk lies in its sensitivity, dexterity, and mobility, which make it almost independent of the rest of the elephant’s body. These unique characteristics allow elephants to use their trunks for various functions, such as picking up food and water, grasping objects, and even using it as a snorkel while swimming. However, the trunk’s most unique use is its role in social interaction. Elephants use their trunks to touch each other’s faces or intertwine trunks in a gesture similar to a human handshake. This “trunk-shake” serves various functions, from greeting and assurance to assessing strength, highlighting the elephant’s sophisticated social intelligence and communication skills.

Forest elephant in habitat. It is considered to be an important seed disperser.

Forest elephant in habitat. It is considered to be an important seed disperser.

If you thought elephant trunks were impressive, their intelligence and communication skills are even more so. Elephants use a wide range of vocalizations, such as trumpeting, rumbling, and purring. They display complex behaviors like problem-solving, tool use, and self-awareness. A study on captive Asian elephants revealed their ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, a skill few nonhuman species possess. They also show empathy and compassion towards other elephants and even humans.

Elephants learn to work together

Elephants learn to work together

Another fascinating thing about elephants is their social behavior. Elephants are highly social animals and live in groups called herds, ranging in size from a few to over 100 elephants. Females and calves form tightly-knit groups, while males tend to lead more solitary lives or gather in small bachelor groups. These intelligent creatures are known for their slow reproductive rate, with females giving birth to a single calf only once every four to five years. The gestation period for elephants is the longest of any mammal, at 22 months.

A family of African savanna elephants

A family of African savanna elephants

A baby elephant doesn’t want to finish its bath

A baby elephant doesn’t want to finish its bath

In the herd, calves are cared for by all of the related females, ensuring that they receive the best possible care. While female calves often stay with their maternal herd for life, males leave once they reach puberty. 

And you probably already knew that elephants are herbivores, right? Despite their size and strength, their diet mainly consists of grass, leaves, and bark. They can consume up to 300 pounds (130 kilograms) of food and drink as much as 40 gallons (150 liters) of water each day.

Asian elephant eating tree bark, using its tusks to peel it off

Asian elephant eating tree bark, using its tusks to peel it off

Unfortunately, these gentle giants face a significant threat of poaching. Between 2007 and 2014, savanna elephants saw a 30% decline, and from 2002 to 2011, forest elephants experienced an alarming 64% decrease due to escalating poaching in Central and West Africa. In 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature recognized them as two separate species, listing savanna elephants as endangered and forest elephants as critically endangered.

While African elephants are primarily poached for their ivory, male Asian elephants also face risks. There’s a growing trade in elephant skin, used for jewelry, endangering both male and female Asian elephants. Additionally, captivity poses another challenge for Asian elephants, with up to a third living in captivity, many suffering from chronic abuse, especially when trained for performances.

With only about 400,000 elephants left worldwide, the need for conservation efforts to protect these magnificent creatures has never been more urgent.

Words of wisdom

“Liking is probably the best form of ownership, and ownership the worst form of liking.” ―José Saramago

“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” ―Franz Kafka

“I’m a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.” ―Abraham Lincoln

“The earth has music for those who listen.” —William Shakespeare

Bibliography

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