PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS : The Asian elephant is one of three species in the order Proboscidea, the others being the Savanna elephant and the Forest elephant.
The Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) is a one of three subspecies or races of the Asian elephant ''Elephas maximus". The other two subspecies of the Asian elephant are E. m. sumatranus on Sumatra and E. m. maximus on Sri Lanka. The Indian elephant for example, is larger, has longer front legs and a thinner body than the Asian elephant found in Thailand.
Elephants in general are the largest existing land mammals and they have the biggest brains in the animal kingdom (weighing 5 kg or 11 lbs).
In general, the Asian elephant weighs between 3-5 tons (6,615-11,025lb); however the smaller Sumatran subspecies weight range begins at 2 tons (4,000lb). By contrast, the African elephant weighs between 4-7 tons (8,820-15,435lb). An Asian elephant’s height at the shoulder is between 6.6-11.5ft (2-3.5m). By contrast the African elephant stands 9.8-13.1ft (3-4m).
The Asian elephant has been captured, tamed and worked by people for more than 4,000 years; it stirs the human imagination like no other animal. They can easily move through swamps or climb mountainous terrain that is too difficult for a horse. Their hearts beat 28 times a minute.
The Trunk : Elephants are endowed with versatile trunks, which have over 100,000 muscles units that make it extremely dexterous. This incredible dexterity enables an elephant to pick up very small items and use their trunks for a wide variety of functions. The trunk has no bones or cartilage except for a tiny bit of cartilage at the tip of the trunk which separates the nostrils; each nostril is lined with a membrane. The septum is a partition dividing the two nostril cavities and it is composed of tiny muscle units. There is a single “finger” at the tip of the Asian elephant’s trunk whereas the African elephant has two “fingers”. Elephants do not use their trunks like a straw to drink through — they suck water into the trunk and squirt it into their mouths. Females are usually smaller than males and can be easily distinguished by the two mammary glands located on the chest.
Hearing and Sight : One of the main visible distinctions between the Asian and African elephant is the size of their ears. The Asian elephant’s ears do not exceed the height of the neck whereas the African elephants do. All elephants have acute hearing far superior to humans and their large ears act amplifiers. There is a “knuckle” found at the back of the ear, which is one of the softest parts of their bodies; mahouts, using their feet will steer or give commands to the animal. Elephants’ communication is rich in infrasound (ranging below what humans can hear) with sound traveling over many kilometers. These long distance infrasonic calls are used in times of stress, excitement, during separation and to relay sexual information. Elephants have have small eyes and poor eyesight so they can only see clearly up to about 30-40 feet (10m). Their sight tends to improve when they are in shaded areas. and have no canine teeth.
Teeth: Elephants do not have canine teeth but they have four high crowned molars with a complex structure for grinding their food. These teeth do not succeed one another vertically in the usual mammalian fashion, but come in successively from behind, one tooth at a time. Think of them like a conveyor belt moving slowly from back to front. When the foremost tooth is so worn down and is of no further use, it is pushed out, mostly in pieces and replaced at the rear by a new one. An elephant grows only six complete sets of these molars during its lifetime; the final set finishes growing in at about the age of 40. This method of replacing teeth prolongs their dentition until that age. Many elephants do reach the age of 60, but few elephants reach the age of 70 because the teeth will be worn down and decayed to the point of them not being able to eat any more resulting in death by slow starvation. A baby elephant will have two or three cheek teeth in each jaw quadrant. As it gets older, new and successively bigger teeth will form in back of these, slowly pushing them forward.
The tusks, which never stop growing, are in fact teeth (elongated upper incisors) and are classified as ivory. They are modified incisors made up mostly of dentine (a bone like tissue found in many animals). The only other animal to have ivory teeth is the walrus. Not all the male Asian elephants have tusks; the tendency is genetically determined. For example in Sri Lanka only 7% of the males are tuskers whereas in Southern India up to 90% will have tusks. These regional variations may have something to do with past and present hunting pressure. In the females they are either absent or rudimentary. Males are sometimes found with tusks up to 1.8m in length; however they are usually much shorter because they have been worn down from work, foraging, digging or broken from fighting. It is very rare to find a male with evenly long tusks.
The skin is about 1 inch (2.5cm) thick, however it is paper-thin on the insides of the ears, around the mouth and the anus. The skin contains no sweat glands and is soft to the touch. Skin care is an important part of an elephant’s lifestyle. Wallowing plays an integral role in elephant society; it also serves as a way to protect the skin from insect bites, sunburn and moisture loss. A bath is important to both captive and wild elephants. It not only cleans them, but is also relaxing to them. Working elephants have to rely on their mahouts to give them daily baths. Rubbing against trees and bathing are equally important in maintaining healthy skin. The freckled look of the Asian elephant is a result of lack of pigment. Baby Asian elephants have brownish red hair that covers their bodies which lessens with age; however, they retain more hair than the African elephant, even as adults. Their brain weighs about 5 kg or 11 lbs.
POPULATION: The latest estimate (June 2003) of the Asian elephant population is below 30,000. The African species is estimated at approximately 500,000.
India’s elephant population is estimated between 10,000 and 15,000, the largest in Asia. About half of these are found in the northeastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghaiaya located in far northeastern India.
FINDING ELEPHANTS : The next highest concentration of elephants is estimated at about 6,000, which live in the jungle forests of Myanmar (Burma). Estimating populations here, for example is very difficult because the nature and vastness of the forests they live in. Normally, conventional methods of estimating elephant numbers is done by direct observation and finding elephant dung or other signs of their presence. In Myanmar it was reported by wildlife biologists that they only sighted wild elephants twice in two years of field tracking and evidence from dung indicate very low densities. In an attempt to get more accurate numbers, In December 2002, a team of researchers, including the U.S. National Zoo Director, Lucy Spelman, have successfully captured and satellite-collared elephants to acquire ecological and behavioral data essential for the protection of this species. Using GPS linked to weather satellites, they can now get precise positions up to six times a day if the weather is clear.
DISTRIBUTION and HABITAT and DIET : The Asian elephant is found in the wild in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam.
Wild elephant populations need vast areas over which to range. However, migratory routes, many which have been cut off by human settlements, are resulting in small and isolated herds. Asian elephants are randomly nomadic in accord with the season. Historically, they travel on a set course over longer periods that may take them as much as ten years to complete before arriving back at any one point. However, these travel patterns have been greatly reduced as fast-growing human populations now confine most elephants to National Parks because of habitat destruction and settlement encroachment.
They are found in a wide variety of forest types, but they tend to avoid large forests of closed canopies. Their distribution is limited by the need for water (about 100 liters) every day.
Elephants are herbivores and will spend up to 20 hours a day eating anywhere from 150 to 300kg of jungle fodder or 6 to 8% of their body weight in food each day. They have a simple digestive system with an unusual cylindrical shaped stomach that stores the food while it waits to be fermented by bacteria in the caecum. The combined length of the small and large intestines is about 100ft. (35m) and it takes about 24 hours to digest a meal. They only derive nutrition from about 45% of what they eat. They prefer feeding on grasses; however they will also eat large amounts of bark, roots and leaves. Understandably, when elephants come across cultivated crops this food becomes addicting and as a result leads to human elephant confrontations. As far as cultivated foods, they seem to prefer rice, bananas and sugar cane. It is like a child being let loose in a candy store.
At our zoo, their food is more nutritious; consisting of 150 pounds of hay, grasses and fruits. As a result, they do not need to consume as much as they would in the wild.
BEHAVIOR : The basic social structure is made up of a family group consisting of 2 to 10 females and their offspring. It has been found that groups of 3 or less adult females with offspring are more stable than larger groups. Young males start to move out of the family group between the ages of 6 and 7 years old. Young males will associate with each other in transitory groups until they reach adulthood. When they become full-grown males they are solitary and only associate with a group when courting a female in estrus.
Musth: When a male elephant reaches the age of 20, he starts to come into a phase known as “musth” which prepares him for the intense competition for females and mating rights. Musth is a Hindi word meaning intoxicated. When a male elephant comes into musth, his level of testosterone (a principal male sex hormone) will rise dramatically by a factor of twenty or more. It is physiologically and mentally an uncomfortable time for the male elephant and typically they will display aggressive behavior. Musth might last up to 60 days as they wander looking for females in estrus. During this time the bull will dramatically reduce his food intake and burn up much of his fat reserves. The temporal gland between the eyes and ears swell and discharge a viscous aromatic secretion. Along with the dribbling of urine that contains soluble pheromones, it signals other elephants of his state. Interestingly, African elephants experience a less pronounced form of musth and at an older age, than their Asian cousins.
Asian elephants are social animals, having a wide complex of community laws, rules, and regulations, a marked discipline and many well-established customs. Their large brains are needed to store information; it allows them to differentiate between individuals, record memories, and store experiences such as droughts, floods, dangerous places and where the best feeding places are. Many experts also believe that they are capable of imagining what other elephants are feeling. A matriarch must be able to make good decisions that will ensure the survival of the herd. Interestingly, elephants tend to venture into dangerous feeding zones, such as farmlands at night under the cover of darkness. Some are able to learn where the boundary lies between a safe feeding area and one that is dangerous.
Their range and how it is used can be very complex. They are gregarious and roam about in herds based on breeding groups of between 3 to 40 females and young. These herds form part of a larger related group known as a clan. Mature males live alone or in small groups and do not have permanent ties to females. Usually the members within the herd are related to one another, the herd being composed chiefly of females, immature elephants and one old bull.
The elephant uses its ears as a fan. Flapping its ears cools the blood in vessels close to the surface of the ear. They love to bathe, showering themselves with water (the trunk can hold six liters) and afterward with dust. The outside of the trunk will also be used to beat against the ground to test whether it is firm enough to walk on. Once convinced it is safe they walk placing the rear foot in exactly the same footprint that the front foot created. They have an extraordinary sense of balance.
Elephants need only about four hours rest each night and unless the animal is sick, it will not lie down to sleep.
COMMUNICATION : A loud trumpeting noise is used to gather a herd. Another noise is a hollow resonant sound made by tapping the trunk "backhanded" on a hard surface, the tip of which is turned upward, while snorting; this signals alarm. Beating the ground violently with the trunk it is signaling anger or displeasure. Elephants have a large repertoire of growls, roars, grunts, trumpeting, and snorts for warnings, greetings, distress, and signaling.
REPRODUCTION and GROWTH : Elephants are slow and difficult to breed with an average of only 4 offspring during a lifetime of 60 years.
As a result of the isolation of wild elephant populations, the gene pool has become depleted with the result being inbreeding. Breeding success in captivity is poor; however, there have been recent advances in the use of artificial insemination resulting in successful elephant births. Unfortunately the cost is very high and unaffordable to most elephant owners.
An adult male will join the herd for mating season after dueling with others for mating rights. These mating conflicts can sometimes lead to death from seriously inflicted wounds. The mating bull will drive all other herd males away and will remain with the cow for about three weeks. The male genetalia are housed internally.
Cows are in estrus only 2 to 4 days during their cycle that lasts about 4 months and under ideal habitat conditions, females reach sexual maturity at about the age of 10. If conditions are difficult sexual maturity may be delayed several years.
The gestation period is 22 months and one or sometimes two calves are born. When the birth is taking place, the other herd cows will form a circle around her, presumably for protection. If the baby is born in an area where there are large carnivores, the mother will blow dust over the newborn in order to dry it and keep the scent of birth from being carried in the air. A newborn calf weighs 200 pounds and stands about three feet tall at the shoulder. One of the first things a calf smells is the dung of the mother that is dropped shortly after the calf born; this associates her scent to her baby. The calf can stand two hours after birth and it will begin to suckle. The young are weaned at about 2 years old. Their rate of growth, the age at which they reach puberty, their life span, and their gerontic (last phase of life) progression is similar to that of man. Elephants live to be about 70 years old.
Calves have milk tusks that are 2 inches long and are shed by the time they are 2 years old. Males will then being to grow permanent tusks. Asian elephants are fully-grown at 20 years old and cows can successfully bear young at the age of 16.
People often ask if African and Asian elephants can interbreed. Because the species live in separate areas of the world this would not naturally happen. However, in captivity it is possible and did happen at the Chester Zoo in England in 1979. The resulting offspring lived only 10 days. This has been the only recorded case of the two species breeding. It is unlikely that any offspring would survive because of the physiological differences between them.
CONSERVATION: In Asia, loss to human settlement is the greatest threat to elephants. Human/elephant conflict results in hundreds of elephant deaths a year. About 20% of the world’s population lives in or near current existing habitat of the Asian elephant and the human population of these areas is growing at a rate of 3% per year. In Viet Nam there were an estimated 2,000 elephants in 1990; by 1998 there were less than 150 left.
The Asian elephant is considered a “keystone” or “flagship” biological species. Because the habitat that they occupy are considered some of the richest biodiversity regions in Asia, its conservation and survival will automatically promote the survival of a variety of other flora and fauna. Some of these regions rich in biodiversity are Western Ghats in Southern India, peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, the rain forests of Sumatra, the tropical forests along the borders of Laos and Viet Nam, Northern Burma (Myanmar), Yunnan in Southern China and the Eastern Himalayas.
Elephants have been hunted for their ivory since man began using carving tools. It is soft enough to carve, fine grained, yet durable enough to polish. A cross-section of an elephant tusk exhibits a unique pattern of criss-cross lines that form diamond shaped areas; this is referred to as “engine turning”. No other tusks exhibit this trait. The quality of the tusk for carving depends on the geographical location of the elephant, its diet and sex.
Decline in Elephant Populations : Between 1969 and 1973 there was an increase in the buying power of ordinary Japanese citizens coupled with a desire to own status symbols. This led to heavy demand for ivory and decimation of elephant populations, especially in Africa. For example:
|Kenya Elephant Population|
From 1979 to 1989 Africa lost half of its elephant population to poaching.
The Asian elephant was and still is a target for poachers today. Because only the males have tusks, it has resulted in devastating the breeding patterns. In some places there are as few as 1 male for every 100 females, which results in limited genetic interchange and low birth rates. In better-protected areas, birth rates are high with up to 90 percent of adult cows being accompanied by calves, instead of perhaps 30 percent in area of severe poaching. Females as well as males are also killed for their hides and meat.
Rapid development has brought massive deforestation throughout Asia and is a major factor that has caused a dramatic decline in the Asian elephant populations. For example Thailand was 60% forested 50 years ago; today only 20% of the forests remain and they are still disappearing at an alarming rate due to illegal logging and encroachment. 100 years ago there were at least 100,000 elephants in Thailand; today there are 2,000 wild and 3,000 captive individuals.
India has the largest population of Asian elephants (estimated at 28,250) but numbers have been falling due to habitat fragmentation, human encroachment, mining and dam construction. In a number of areas the government has set up corridors for the elephants to travel from one area to another. Unfortunately people regularly encroach into these corridors taking matters into their own hands, killing elephants when they rampage through a settlement. As populations steadily rise, so too will conflicts, elephants being the ultimate losers.
A current project is underway by The Wildlife Trust of India and the World Land Trust who have joined to open a corridor (Siju-Corridor) bridging the gap between two forested reserves in the Indo-Burma region. Projects like this are crucial in keeping elephants genetically diverse and increasing their population. Maintaining the corridor for elephants use only will be the real challenge
Progress in the logging industry and the ability to rapidly deforest an area not only destroys habitat for wild elephants, it has taken a toll on most captured elephants. Modern logging techniques have resulted in unemployment for many of Asia’s working elephants. Traditional elephant owners are reluctant to keep elephants that they can no longer use to make a living.
In India alone, elephant-human conflict results in about 300 human and 200 elephant deaths each year due to poaching, crop protection and any number of other accidents, including vehicle-elephant collisions.
Bangkok has been known for the 300 or so elephants and their handlers that roam the urban areas begging for food and money. In a positive move to alleviate this situation, in August 2003, the government returned 99 of those elephants to the forest under a pilot project to train animals that previously roamed Bangkok's streets. The government has also stiffened fines to discourage elephants from urban areas.
The 99 animals and their mahouts are being trained to help protect forests by patrolling for poachers and illegal loggers. It is a win-win situation helping to protect habitat, the elephants, employ the mahouts and pay the owners for use of their animals.
WORKING ELEPHANTS and MAHOUTS : Elephants have been domesticated in the N.E. India since time immemorial and both the elephant and the mahout have become a part of the folklore and the folksongs. Stories of brave and expert phandis (noosers) and mahouts are passed on from generation to generation. In the rural Assam mahouts are looked upon with awe and admiration.
Once a captive elephant is weaned at the about the age of three, it begins life as a domesticated elephant under the care of its keeper or mahout. Other than its mother, the mahout is the next most important influence in the elephant's life.
A mahout traditionally is a highly experienced and knowledgeable individual with excellent elephant rearing skills. A mahout must have an intimate understanding of his particular elephant and develop a bond of trust and affection that allows him to control the animal with simple verbal commands and touch. A family that has kept elephants for generations passes the critical knowledge and skills needed from one generation to the next. An elephants is treated as part of the family. Just as children are born into a family, so too are elephants. A young boy will grow up with a baby elephant and together they will develop a lifetime bond based on trust and affection. Elephants are very loyal to their mahouts and they are often associated with supernatural powers because they control such a big animal. Ideally, this relationship will not end until either the elephant is sold or the mahout dies. Many mahouts will spend up to 26 days out of the month with their elephant and the remainder with his family.
It is well known that an elephant having had many different mahouts cannot be trusted. When an elephant senses danger or is under stress, it takes a very experienced and trusted mahout to keep the animal calm. Because of the changes in how forests are cleared and bans on logging there is less work for the elephants, so many sons of career mahouts are choosing other professions. In many countries this has led to a decline in quality mahouts that is resulting in young inexperienced handlers, causing injuries and sometimes death not only to elephants, but mahouts and other unfortunate people as well. It has also led to the use of elephants by illegal logging operations.
Touring in Chitwan National Park, Nepal
Tourism centered on elephants is being developed to provide a better future for unemployed or badly employed elephants. Efforts are being made on local and international levels. Thailand has developed many well-run tourist camps.
In Northeast India, where there is a large population of Asian elephants, the terrain is very difficult and elephants and good mahouts will always be in demand for forest work, tourism, as a means of transportation and forest protection. The forest protection in this area is very important for the survival of India’s large population of wild elephants.
HISTORY and CULTURE : The Asian elephant descended from the African elephant 55m.years ago. It ranged from Iraq and Syria through China.
In India, elephants have been an integral part of their cultural history, dating as far back as the Vedic Period (1500B.C. to 600B.C.) References are made in these early times to their domesticity and tameness. Elephants eventually gained a higher status than the horse, which was an extremely important animal in Indian culture. The elephant became the carrier (vahana) of Indra, the King of the Gods. They were also prominent in the stories of Buddha with elephant festivals and processions being commonplace. By 231B.C. the elephant had become the emblem of Buddhism and they appeared as prominent features in artistic carvings. Elephant possession and use as a royal mount was firmly established and along with this they became an asset of war.
War elephants in India were used from the 1st millennium B.C. to the early 19th century. A staggering number of elephants have died fighting wars during India’s history. It was not until the introduction of muskets in mid-1700, that elephants were no longer needed to fight in the front lines of battle. However, their importance for use was not diminished because they could still transport soldiers, ammunition and supplies over extremely rough terrain where men could not go alone.
All elephants in private ownership in India were put into active military service to defend their borders against the Japanese who had invaded Burma and Southeast Asia during WWII. It was not until the introduction of the 4-wheel drive vehicle that the role of the elephant in India’s commissariat ended.
Today in India elephants are still used as status symbols in some temples, in circuses, and by the forest and tourism department of the government. It stands as a symbol of eternal India.
HONOLULU ZOO ELEPHANTS :
Scientific Name :Proboscidea Elephas maximus bengalensis
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