Unless someone lives in an undisturbed tribal culture, they know what an elephant is. Elephants are extremely popular animals with their mammoth sizes, intelligence, and funny noses. But elephants are also targets for their ivory, their labor potential, and various other things. Due to all this, elephants are endangered. Tired of hearing me say so many species are threatened? Well, I’m tired of saying it, but, it’s important to know the facts.
There are two species of elephant commonly recognized, though it’s been argued that there may be a third. The African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest of the elephants averaging 2.2 to 4 m (7-13 ft) at the shoulder. They have large ears, a concave back, two extensions at the tip of their trunk, and more wrinkled skin than the Asian elephant. Bush elephants can be found on the savanna, scrub, or traveling through deserts.
The African forest elephant (Loxodonia cyclotis) is the smallest of the three though otherwise very similar to the bush elephant. As its name suggests, these animals can be found in dense forests, which likely accounts for their smaller size, which reaches a maximum of 2.5 m (8 ft).
The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is slightly smaller with smaller ear, a more flattened back, smoother skin, and one extension at the tip of the trunk. These elephants can reach heights of between 2 to 3.2 m (7.3 to 10 ft) at the shoulder. There are three subspecies: E. m. maximus from Sri Lanka, E. m. indicus of India, and E. m. sumatranus from the island of Sumatra.
Elephants are herbivores that can eat up to 150 kg (330 lbs) a day. As you can imagine, a herd of elephants can eat quite a lot, which could cause a lot of damage if they stayed in one place. However, elephants are fairly nomadic and go on seasonal migrations. This is, of course, when they are not constricted by fencing large or human “developments”. The inability to migrate can also cause overpopulation problems. I mentioned some of these issues in “The Fence: Friend of Foe? Part 2“, which sometimes leads to management practices such as culling or other birth control methods such as immunocontraceptives.
African bush elephants have highly social structures while the forest and Asian elephants have smaller social groups. In the case of any of these species, females live in tight-knit matrilineal family groups that can range from a mother and her offspring to several related adult females and their offspring. During the dry season sometimes various groups may come together to form a clan that works together to defend their seasonal range.
Adult males, on the other hand, often live alone or with small groups of other males, though on occasion African bush elephant males can form large groups. Older adult males often control the behavior of young males, which have been known to become aggressive when left on their own. After puberty males go into a yearly state called musth which is known as a period of increased testosterone. This is visibly observed by a fluidic secretion from the temporal glands on their faces. They often become very aggressive, particularly toward other males, while musth appears to signal a healthy male of breeding age to females.
Intelligent animals, elephants are capable of learning from humans as well as other elephants, using tools, and having strong memories. Because of this, elephants have long been part of human culture. Both Asian and African elephants have been tamed for their use in war, for labor, and for entertainment, such as circuses and rides. Due to their close proximity to humans, being used as tools, these animals have sometimes been subject to cruel treatment that has ranged from being confined in small spaces, lack of food, and physical abuse. India protects them from such harm by The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960, which was created in an effort to prevent “unnecessary” pain or suffering.
Elephants have been known to destroy human crops by consuming or trampling them, which often leads to confrontations. However, young males with no older adult and elephants in musth have also been known to attack people and destroy homes. Still, most of the problems surrounding human/elephant encounters can be attributed to destruction of their habitat, providing fewer resources and space.
In addition, elephants are targeted by poachers for the ivory of their tusks, which are used for decoration such carvings, jewelry, and knife hilts. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed the Asian elephant in 1975 and the African elephant in 1990. The purpose of this was to prevent international trade of animals and their products depending on the appendix the animal is listed on. However, in certain cases there has been an allowance of certain ivory stockpiles. The price for elephant tusks on the black market is high and the area most of these animals live in is surrounded by people in or near poverty-level, making poaching a tempting consideration. The other major threat is habitat destruction and fragmentation, which is one of the leading causes of threats and extinction no matter the species.
There are various levels of protection on elephants all over the world, which in some areas has helped their populations recover. Still, all elephant species are considered threatened. There are various organizations to help in their protection, either from poaching, old land mines (which cause injuries and death), abuse, and fragmentation. One such organization is Elephant Aid International lead by one of the globe’s leading elephant experts, Carol Buckley. This organization works to educate the general populous as well as elephant handlers, and care for elephants that have been injured, abused, or abandoned. Buckley has also opened The Elephant Sanctuary, located in Tennessee, U.S., which is a natural refuge for rescued elephants. Not only do both these organizations have social media sites but the Elevision blog/eNewsletter allows for easy access to information for anyone interested in the work done.