Elephants have fascinated humankind since early time.
There are two species of elephants: Asian and African, and within the latter there are two subspecies: savannah and forest elephants.
African elephants are heavier (6 tons) and taller (11 feet at shoulder height) compared to their Asian counterparts. In addition, their immense triangular ears extend well beyond their neck. Ears of Asian elephants are comparatively small.
African elephants have concave backs, flat foreheads and carry their heads high. The backs of Asian elephants are convex, foreheads are twinned domed and they carry their heads low.
Both sexes of Africans carry tusks, whereas only Asian males grow tusks.
Forest elephants of western and central Africa are noticeably smaller than savannah elephants.
Interestingly, elephants evolved from sea cows — Sirenia. The closest living relatives are manatees and dugongs of shallow coastal Atlantic and Indian oceans. In land, it’s the hyrax — a small furry animal with a pointed muzzle, roughly the size of a rabbit.
Female elephants gestate for 22 months, the longest of any mammal. At birth calves are perfect miniature copies of full-grown elephants minus tusks. They weigh about 264 pounds and within a half an hour they are on their feet. They drink about 2.5 gallons of milk a day for the first six months, and are dependent upon their mother’s milk for up to two years.
At birth the weight of the brain is 35 percent of their body weight, similar to humans at 26 percent of body weight. In most other animals it is 10 percent of the body weight.
Each family unit of about a dozen is lead by the oldest female. She decides where they go to sleep, eat and drink. Elephants always act readily to help one another. Young males leave the unit at the age of 12. Young females begin to breed at 11 years.
It is a thrilling experience to watch elephants greet each other. The elaborate, joyful ritual is not dissimilar to the fancy forms of human handshakes and hugs.
Elephants are agile, negotiating narrow ledges and rocky outcrops with ease. Elephants can move faster than humans. Elephants have the largest ears of any animal on the planet. When they fan them open they release enough heat to lower their body temperature by about 17 degrees.
The trunk is a nose, transforming into a powerful limb which picks-up both food and water. It is sensitive enough to pluck a small fruit from a tree or remove a piece of grit from the eye.
Ever-growing tusks are used as important tools along with the trunk to dig for water, mineral salts, roots, pry bark from trees and to lift weight.
Like humans, elephants are either right or left tusked — using one in preference to the other. That’s why one tusk is shorter or more worn than another.
Six sets of molars — the size of a brick — move like a conveyor belt replacing grinding teeth as they wear down from chewing 330 pounds of food a day. Elephants eventually wear out their teeth after 60 years and they die of malnutrition. Just like humans, they are susceptible to cardiovascular disease and arthritis.
Elephants have complex brains like humans, dolphins and great apes. They have complex vocalization and calls ranging from trumpeting, screams, bellows, roars, low-frequency growling and rumbles. There are over 50 elephant calls including some 35 known rumbles. Discussions, disagreements and communications can last up to 20 minutes.
Elephants grieve at the loss of a unit member and they bury their dead.
Occasionally fruits of the marula and umganu trees ferment and elephants become intoxicated — chasing and lobbing fruit at each other.
Since the time of the Egyptians, humans have persecuted and slaughtered millions of elephants. Today they are only safe in parks and reserves and even then they are relentlessly poached.
Public affection, recognition of one of the most intelligent and social critters on the planet, and similarities to humankind are helping people realize that we must protect elephants.
Dr. Reese Halter is a conservation biologist at Cal Lutheran University, public speaker and founder of the international conservation institute Global Forest Science. His latest children’s book is “The Mysteries of the Redwood Forest with Bruni the Bear.” Follow him: twitter.com/DrReeseHalter.