Elephants are present in only two places in the world, the continent of Africa, and certain areas in Southeast Asia. Asian Elephants used to live as far north as the Himalayas and in China, however, their range has decreased significantly to small pockets in India, Sumatra, Borneo, and other countries. Elephants prefer areas which have both forests, as well as open and grassy areas. African bush Elephants, the largest of the three species are found scattered across the savannahs of Sub-Saharan Africa in the countries of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia, and Angola. African forest Elephants have a smaller range that is isolated to the dense forests in West Africa, in places such as Gabon, and the Republic of Congo.
What are Elephants?
Elephants are large herbivorous mammals that are separated into three distinct species, and although they share many characteristics, they all have some unique features. African bush Elephants are the largest of the three species, have the largest ears, and tusks that curve outward. African forest Elephants are slightly smaller than their savannah dwelling cousins, and darker in color. The most obvious difference between the two species is that the forest species have tusks that are straight and pointed downward. Asian Elephants are more distinct from the two African species and are the smallest of the three species. Asian Elephants have much smaller ears with large domed heads. In Asian elephant populations, only some male Elephants have tusks, compared to in African populations where both Males and Females can have tusks. All Elephants have very thick skin which protects them from the heat and retains important water, and they constantly work to clean their skin by taking baths and using dirt and mud as sunscreen.
Not only are Elephants incredibly intelligent, but they also have very complex social structures and incredible communication skills. Although they are large creatures that can be intimidating, Elephants are very graceful, playful, and gentle animals who will only tend to lash out when they feel threatened. All species of Elephant tend to live in social groups called herds, which are tied together through family bonds. Usually a matriarch, or head female, will guide the herd’s movements. Herds are typically made up of the matriarch’s female relatives like her daughters and young offspring. Male Elephants, or bulls, may occasionally join a herd but tend to be more solitary, and young males may sometimes choose to live in loose groups with other young males. Elephants communicate frequently through vocalizations, sometimes too low for the human ear to pick up. Elephants can even communicate over dozens of miles through something called seismic vibrations. Elephants will emit low frequency vibrations, which other Elephants can pick up on through their highly sensitive feet!
Elephants are herbivores and have a diet that consists of grasses, shrubs, roots, leaves, fruit, and occasionally even branches, bark, and twigs. Elephants spend around 80% of their day foraging since they need a lot of nutrients to fuel their giant bodies. Their trunks act as a a very useful and important tool to use to forage and eat, as their trunks are entirely prehensile, meaning capable of grasping. Their trunks are capable of complex movement and act like an extra arm. Elephants will also use them to dig in the ground and on hillsides for minerals to eat that may not be present in the plants around them, which are essential for their bodies.
Because of Elephants’ long lifespans, Elephants usually are not old enough to begin breeding until around 14 – 18 years old. Elephants will breed year-round and males will usually show when they are ready to breed by going into musth, a period where they express they are ready to mate. Female Elephants are only ready to mate around three times a year, and because of this they usually have only one calf every four years. Once a female Elephant is pregnant, her gestation period is 22 months long, that is almost two years! Elephant gestation periods are long not only due to their large size, but also for their complex brains which they need to help them immediately understand the world around them and the social structure of their herds. Once a calf is born, they can walk and communicate two hours after birth, and they already weigh 200 pounds. Elephant calves will stay with their mothers for up to 16 years, and females will sometimes stay in the Elephant herd it grew up in permanently. Once males become mature, they will leave and become more solitary, or find other males to join.
Elephants face many threats in the wild, the biggest being human development and poaching. Elephant habitat has significantly shrunk over the past 100 years, and restricted Elephant habitat to only a fraction of what it once was. This puts Elephants not only at risk of losing food and water sources, but also causes conflict between humans and Elephants when Elephants enter human developments. The poaching of Elephants for their tusks has been a huge threat to Elephant populations for hundreds of years. Elephant tusks are made of a material called ivory, which is sold for a very high price, and unfortunately only comes from the teeth of endangered animals like Elephants. Although the sale of ivory and hunting of Elephants has been illegal for some time, Elephants are continuing to be hunted for their tusks. Many organizations put their lives on the line to help protect Elephant populations from illegal poaching, however, since ivory is still worth a lot of money, Elephants are continuously hunted.
Currently, all Elephant species are classified an Endangered, with African forest Elephants classified as Critically Endangered. However, some bush Elephant population are making a slow come back in certain areas, such as Kenya, where they have enforced aggressive anti-poaching regulations. However, since Elephants are slow to reproduce, Elephant populations take a long time to grow. Elephants such as the African forest species are still struggling, and their numbers are declining quickly. Unfortunately, their forest habitat is being rapidly destroyed to make room for more human development, causing Elephant habitat to shrink quickly. Asian Elephants are facing similar issues, where their forest homes are disappearing quickly. Elephants need our help now, luckily there are some things we can all do to help!
How to Help
Elephants are an amazing and special creature that need help to keep their populations thriving. Luckily, some Elephants are already developing special adaptations of their own to help! In certain herds in Mozambique, Elephant populations were devastated during times of civil war, but many who survived were female Elephants without tusks, caused by a rare gene. Without tusks, these Elephants were not hunted and have now passed on these genes to new generations. This rare gene may be helping some populations, but evolutionary adaptations alone will not save the Elephants! Ways you can help include, buying Elephant safe products, supporting conservation efforts, and educating others on the plight of Elephants. Elephants live in many places where coffee is grown, and wood is harvested. By buying products that do not affect Elephant habitat, you are helping save their homes. If you can, donate! Donations to non-profit organizations and conservations efforts are essential to the ongoing fight for Elephants. Tell people about Elephants and learn all you can! The more people who know Elephants need help, the more support those on the front lines will receive to help save the Elephants.