Trunk of Tricks: Of all its specialized features, the muscular trunk is the most remarkable, serving as a nose, hand, an extra foot, a signaling
device and a tool for gathering food, siphoning water, dusting,
digging and a variety of other functions.
Not only does the long
trunk permit the elephant to reach as high as 23 feet, but it can
also perform movements as delicate as picking berries or caressing
a companion. It is capable, too, of powerful twisting and coiling
movements used for tearing down trees or fighting.
Tusk, Tusk, Tusk: The tusks, another remarkable feature, are greatly elongated incisors
(elephants have no canine teeth.) The largest tusk ever recorded
weighed 214 pounds and was 138 inches long. Tusks of this size are
not found on elephants in Africa today, as over the years hunters
and poachers have taken animals with the largest tusks. Because
tusk size is an inherited characteristic, it is rare to find one
now that would weigh more than 100 pounds.
Both male and female African elephants have tusks. They grow for
most of an elephant's lifetime and are an indicator of age. Elephants
are "right- or left-tusked," using the favored tusk more
often as a tool, just as a person favors one hand or the other.
Ear-conditioners: The African elephant's ears are often described as similar to a
map of Africa. The nicks, tears and scars as well as different vein
patterns on the ears help distinguish between individuals. Elephants
use their ears to display, signal or warn when alarmed or angry.
The ears also control body temperature; by flapping the ears on
hot days, the blood circulates in the ear's numerous veins and helps
cool the animal down.
Mother Knows Best: Elephants are generally gregarious and form small family groups consisting of an older matriarch and three or four offspring, along
with their young. It was once thought that family groups were led
by old bull elephants, but these males are most often solitary.
The female family groups are often visited by mature males checking
for females in estrus. Several interrelated family groups may inhabit
an area and know each other well. When they meet at watering holes
and feeding places, they greet each other affectionately.
The Birds and the Bees: Females mature at about 11 years and stay in the group, while the
males, which mature between 12 and 15, are usually expelled from
the maternal herd. Even though these young males are sexually mature,
they do not breed until they are in their mid- or late 20s (or even
older) and have moved up in the social hierarchy.
Mature male elephants
in peak condition experience an annual period of heightened sexual
and aggressive activity called musth. During this period, which
may last a week or even up to three to four months, the male produces
secretions from swollen temporal glands, continuously dribbles a
trail of strong-smelling urine and makes frequent mating calls.
Females are attracted to these males and prefer to mate with them
rather than with males not in musk.
Attentive Mothers: Usually only one calf is born to a pregnant female. An orphaned calf will usually be adopted by one of the family's lactating females or suckled by various females.
Elephants are very attentive mothers,
and because most elephant behavior has to be learned, they keep
their offspring with them for many years. Tusks erupt at 16 months
but do not show externally until 30 months.
The calf suckles with
its mouth (the trunk is held over its head); when its tusks are
5 or 6 inches long, they begin to disturb the mother and she weans
it. Once weaned usually at age 4 or 5, the calf still remains in
the maternal group.
Elephants in Danger : The threat to the African elephant presented by the ivory trade is unique to the species. Larger, long-lived, slow-breeding animals, like the elephant, are more susceptible to overhunting than other animals. They cannot hide, and it takes many years for an elephant to grow and reproduce. An elephant needs an average of 300 lb (140 kg) of vegetation a day to survive. As large predators are hunted, the local small grazer populations (the elephant's food competitors) find themselves on the rise. The increased number of herbivores ravage the local trees, shrubs, and grasses. Elephants themselves have few natural predators besides man and, occasionally, lions.
Habitat Loss: Another threat to elephant's survival in general is the ongoing cultivation of their habitats with increasing risk of conflicts of interest with human cohabitants. These conflicts kill 150 elephants and up to 100 people per year in Sri Lanka. Lacking the massive tusks of its African cousins, the Asian elephant's demise can be attributed mostly to loss of its habitat.
As larger patches of forest disappear, the ecosystem is affected in profound ways. The trees are responsible for anchoring soil and absorbing water runoff. Floods and massive erosion are common results of deforestation. Elephants need massive tracts of land because, much like the slash-and-burn farmers, they are used to crashing through the forest, tearing down trees and shrubs for food and then cycling back later on, when the area has regrown. As forests are reduced to small pockets, elephants become part of the problem, quickly destroying all the vegetation in an area, eliminating all their resources.
National parks: An elephant in the Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania.Africa's first official reserve eventually became one of the world's most famous and successful national parks. Kruger National Park in South Africa first became a reserve against great opposition in 1898 (then Sabi Reserve). It was deproclaimed and reproclaimed several times before it was renamed and granted national park status in 1926. It was to be the first of many.
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