Scientific name: Elephantidae
Many consider the mighty elephant to be the most well-loved animal in the entire African lineup. Aristotle once said that it is “the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind”. This giant is not only the second largest animal in the world, behind the blue whale, but is also known for being among the most highly intelligent creatures on earth. With an extremely high level of insight, elephants have proven to be most industrious and helpful to mankind, evoking a sense of fascination in the minds and hearts of humans for centuries. They are considered to be a symbol of good luck in many cultures, even modern Western ones. This belief originated in India and south-east Asia, where the Hindu religion honors the intellectual and social superiority of the beautiful elephant. Because of their incredible capacity for knowledge, understanding, learning and insight, elephants have become both deeply adored and horribly abused by human beings. When dealing with creatures that possess as high a level of understanding and insight, it is imperative that we recognize their value and potential and take the utmost care in protecting them. Fortunately, elephants are now protected by the African Elephant Conservation Act and the Endangered Species Act because of significant loss of the species from poaching.
The elephant has long been held as a totem or good luck charm. Because of the strong family bonds that exist among the family members of the species, elephant totems are said to improve the love and respect among members of the family of anyone possessing them. For thousands of years African mythology has believed that by wearing an elephant hair bracelet you would be prosperous and healthy, never becoming sick or poor. The hair is used in rings, bracelets, earrings and necklaces and is woven together to form a strong band. Some elephant hair can reach lengths of up to 40 inches, which is impressive for an animal that is officially classified as being hairless. In ancient times, the massive elephant was sometimes used as an executioner, trained to crush people who were condemned to death. They also were used in warfare in India, China and Persia over the centuries. This practice arose from Alexander the Great’s experience with warring elephants against King Porus. Only male elephants were used, as they are known to be aggressive and unruly, which was enough to frighten any horse and its rider from the battle scene. Elephants were used, too, as the ceremonial mounts for royalty and those held in high religious esteem, for safari-style hunting escapades, in circuses and on put display in zoos.
The elephants' primary habitats are the forests of Africa and Southeast Asia and they also roam the plains browsing in search of food and water. For this reason they have been nicknamed “browsers”. There are two surviving elephant species, the African elephant (which is larger and has bigger ears) and the Asian elephant. Amazingly, the African elephant’s ears are shaped like the continent of Africa and the Asian elephant’s ears are shaped like Asia, making it fairly easy to tell them apart. According to the Center for Elephant Conservation there are around 600,000 African elephants and around 35,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. These mammoth animals need space, more than another other species, as they can weigh up to 15,000 pounds, stand up to twelve feet tall and eat up to 700 pounds of vegetation each day. Nature has made this species fragile, as they are the first to be affected by lack of vegetation or water due to drought. Some males, known as bulls, have large tusks while the females (cows) and younger males have “tushes”, which seldom extend beyond the upper lip. The tip of the trunk has one finger-like projection that enable the elephants to grasp food and other small objects and to strip vegetation from branches. The elephants' skin is lightly wrinkled with sparse hair all over their bodies. They are so powerful that they can uproot and entire tree trunk, tearing down heavy branches and delivering forceful blows in anger or self-defense. The elephant's trunk alone has about 100,000 different muscles, allowing it to rip and pull with brute force.
Adult males are solitary, while the females and young males all live in a tight-knit family group called a herd, which is led by the matriarch. Herds sometimes split and larger families are separated, depending on the matriarch’s decision. This can be due to excessive numbers or shortages of food or water. When herds meet at watering holes or breeding spots, they joyfully greet one another. This welcoming reception includes holding their heads up, flapping their ears, trumpeting, screaming and turning around in circles. Elephants who have formed very close bonds with people are also likely to react in this way on seeing their companion after a separation. Another major cause for celebration is the birth of a calf, when the aunts and matriarch gather around the mother in joyful support and celebrations begin with trumpeting and even screams of joy and excitement. Then the entire herd will join in.
Research and observation has yielded many fascinating facts about elephants. Some people believe that their intelligence rivals that of human beings. They are undeniably similar to us, having an emotional makeup much like our own with a sense of family and self. They also have a similar lifespan of around seventy years, learn new facts and behaviors, mimic sounds that they hear, play with a sense of humor, perform artistic activities, use tools, display compassion and show self-awareness while understanding their place in the social structure. Self awareness is an indication of the vast capacity for thinking and intellect that exists in the elephant. They can, in fact, recognize themselves in a mirror, something that is extremely rare in the animal kingdom.
Although the largest whale is 20 times the body size of an elephant, its brain is just under twice the size. Part of the reason that elephants possess such a superior level of intelligence is the structure of their brain. Their neocortex is highly developed, as it is in humans, apes and some dolphins. This is generally accepted as an indication of complex intelligence. The elephant’s capacity for memory and emotions is remarkable and is due to the well-developed hippocampus. This is the area of the brain responsible for emotional flashbacks and is the reason that elephants can experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Problem solving abilities are another impressive facet of their boundless intelligence. They are able to use tools to accomplish a task they cannot perform on their own. They use sticks to scratch their backs when their trunk can not reach, have been known to drop rocks on electric fences to damage them, and have unshackled themselves from chain bindings. Elephants are known to amuse themselves by playing games, either in a group, or with just one player using objects from the environment to toss, twist, or interact with each other in some way. Games are started with loud trumpeting, indicating to those in the herd that a new session is beginning. Playing games is not limited to the youth. Older matriarchs and bulls have been known to engage in some very playful recreation and have displayed a sense of humor in their games, often tricking and teasing their spectators.
Perhaps the most enticing quality of the elephant is its undeniable similarity to us, manifested by the close bonds they form with family members, their communication abilities, the care of their young and their emotions. The ability to mimic sounds is another indication of the impressive intelligence of these beasts. They have been recorded mimicking the sounds of passing trucks and articulate certain sounds so that they bear a strong resemblance to the spoken word. Elephants experience many of the same emotions as people do, ones that are usually restricted to being that of humans and very seldom seen in animals. They are capable of sadness, joy, love, jealousy, fury, grief, compassion and distress. As social creatures, they will frequently touch one another in affectionate, loving ways. Joy is most often displayed when they greet close friends or family members. The matriarch, which is usually the strongest, largest and oldest female of the herd, has the responsibility to protect the herd and they loyally follow her. She will defend and protect her family members at any cost, even at that of her own valuable life.
The insight and intelligence of the elephant is particularly visible in their ability to grieve and mourn their dead. Recently deceased elephants will receive a burial ceremony, while those who are already reduced to a skeleton are still paid respect by passing herds. The burial ceremony is marked by deep rumblings as the dead body is touched and caressed by the herd members’ trunks. The herd takes great care in the honoring the dead, walking back and forth in search of leaves and twigs to be used for covering the body in an act of dignity. Many times they form circles around the carcass and chant as if to be saying prayers and will remain there for days at a time mourning the loss of their loved one. The elephant’s capacity for sadness and grief is truly unique amongst members of the animal world. While most animals do not hesitate to leave the weak and young behind to die, elephants are distressed by the situation, and continue to show signs of this grieving for extended periods of time. Even years later, elephants have been observed revisiting the site where one of their herd or family had died.
The African elephant is not only the earth's largest land mammal, it is also one of the world's most sought after creatures because of its valuable ivory tusks. Ivory is formed from dentine and makes up the bulk of the teeth and tusks of elephants. It has been a valued material since the Stone Age and is used for objects like jewelry, vases and statues. All sales of ivory are banned until 2016 by the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This does not, unfortunately, mean that it is not used on the black market. Poachers still kill elephants in large numbers for their tusks, which are used in the East for medicinal purposes.
While the overall elephant population is about half of what it was 40 years ago, many areas of Africa have more elephants than the populated areas can support. Years ago, overhunting and the ivory trade were the biggest threat to the species, but fortunately ivory bans, hunting regulations and protected areas for safeguarding the elephants have helped to greatly reduce the poaching problem. Humane treatment and welfare of the species has become a world priority, which is a blessing. In the 1970’s, the global demand for ivory threatened to make the elephant population extinct. Poachers with access to automatic weapons derived from international arms sales and civil wars were slaughtering herds of elephants faster than ever before. From 1970 to 1985, the total elephant population of Africa decreased by half, causing many countries to ban or severely restrict the importation and sale of ivory. At a 1989 CITES meeting, 115 countries decided to ban the international trade of ivory in the hopes of restoring elephant populations to healthy levels. Elephant populations in Africa as a whole are increasing, in part, thanks to the CITES ban and with elephants being listed on the most endangered species list.
Every piece of ivory is a haunting reminder of a once majestic and proud animal that died to sacrifice its tusks for a trinket. During the 1980’s, poachers killed an estimated average of 200 African elephants every day for their tusks. This caused the population to plummet from 1.3 million in 1979 to 625,000 in less than a decade. In 1990 when the ban was placed on the international trade of ivory, as a symbolic gesture of their support, Kenya destroyed its ivory stockpile valued at over $3 million and has been foremost in the effort to promote elephant conservation. This ban, however, did not affect the domestic sale and use of ivory or reduce its demand on the black market. Most of the illegal import of ivory has been into China, a non-member of the CITES. Proudly, the United States was one of the main countries to impose the ivory ban and it continues to oppose the lifting of the ban.
South Africa has one of the best conservation initiatives for the elephant: photo safaris and eco-friendly paper. Local African residents are now less inclined to kill elephants because they are receiving revenues from photo safari operators who bring in paid tourists to view the animals. They are actually investing resources to defend their elephants against poachers. The laws of Africa have now made it legal to kill poachers, which has caused a significant decline in the loss of elephants in recent years. The locals are also finding an income stream from eco-friendly paper is made from the elephant dung. It is collected, boiled for three hours, cleansed, strained, left to dry and then turned into paper for sale. It has provided employment to disadvantaged local people without much of a capital outlay as the dung is freely available. The paper is sold to local businesses or directly to tourists and some is exported internationally. The demand for this eco-friendly product has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. Fortunately, international measures for elephant conservation now focus on controlling ivory stockpiles, strengthening the borders against poachers in protected areas, anti-poaching patrols and reduction of human/animal conflicts, creating a very positive change and giving hope for the survival of the mystical elephants.