T hroughout history, the elephant has played an important role in human economies, religion, and culture. The immense size, strength, and stature of this largest living land animal has intrigued people of many cultures for hundreds of years.
In Asia, elephants have served as beasts of burden in war and peace. Some civilizations have regarded elephants as gods, and they have been symbols of royalty for some.
Elephants have entertained us in circuses and festivals around the world. For centuries, the elephant’s massive tusks have been prized for their ivory. The African elephant once roamed the entire continent of Africa, and the Asian elephant ranged from Syria to northern China and the islands of Indonesia. These abundant populations have been reduced to groups in scattered areas south of the Sahara and in isolated patches in India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia.
Demand for ivory, combined with habitat loss from human settlement, has led to a dramatic decline in elephant populations in the last few decades. In 1930, there were between 5 and 10 million African elephants. By 1979, there were 1.3 million.
In 1989, when they were added to the international list of the most endangered species, there were about 600,000 remaining, less than one percent of their original number.
Asian elephants were never as abundant as their African cousins, and today they are even more endangered than African elephants. At the turn of the century, there were an estimated 200,000 Asian elephants. Today there are probably no more than 35,000 to 40,000 left in the wild.
At first glance, African and Asian elephants appear the same. An informed eye, however, can distinguish the two species. An African bull elephant (adult male) can weigh as much as 14,000 to 16,000 pounds (6300 to 7300 kg) and grow to 13 feet (four meters) at the shoulder. Its smaller relative, the Asian elephant, averages 5,000 pounds (2300 kg) and 9 to 10 feet (3 meters) tall.
The African elephant is sway-backed and has a tapering head, while the Asian elephant is hump-backed and has a huge, domed head. Probably the most interesting difference between the two species is their ears. Oddly, the African elephant’s large ears match the shape of the African continent, and the Asian elephant’s smaller ears match the shape of India.
Elongated incisors (front teeth), more commonly known as tusks, grow up to 7 inches (18 cm) per year. All elephants have tusks, except for female Asian elephants. The largest of the African bulls’ tusks can weigh as much as 160 pounds (73 kg) and grow to 12 feet (4 meters) long. Most animals this big, however, are gone; they were the first to be killed for their ivory.
Most African elephants live on the savanna, but some live in forests or even deserts. Most Asian elephants live in forests. As herbivores (plant eaters), elephants consume grass, foliage, fruit, branches, twigs, and tree bark. Elephants spend three-quarters of its day eating, and they eats as much as 400 pounds (880 kg) of vegetation each day. For this task, they have only four teeth for chewing.
In the hot climates of their native habitats, elephants need about 50 gallons (190 liters) of water to drink every day. Elephants boast the largest nose in the world, which is actually part nose and part upper lip. It is a large natural hose, with a six-gallon (23-liter) capacity.
Elephants are considered a Keystone species in the African landscape. They pull down trees, break up bushes, create salt licks, dig waterholes, and forge trails. Other animals, including humans, like the pygmies of the Central African Republic, depend on the openings elephants create in the forest and brush and in the waterholes they dig.
Even elephant droppings are important to the environment. Baboons and birds pick through dung for undigested seeds and nuts, and dung beetles reproduce in these deposits. The nutrient-rich manure replenishes depleted soil. Finally, it is a vehicle for seed dispersal. Some seeds will not germinate unless they have passed through an elephant’s digestive system.
Wild elephants have strong family ties. The females and young are social, living in groups under the leadership of an older female or matriarch. Adult males are solitary, although they stay in contact with the females over great distances, using sounds well below the range of human hearing. Family groups communicate with each other using these low-frequency vibrations.
It is an eerie sight to see several groups converging on a waterhole from miles apart, apparently by some prearranged signal, when human observers have heard nothing.
The natural lifespan of an elephant, about 70 years, is comparable to a human’s. Elephants reach breeding age at about 15 years of age. Females generally give birth to one 200-pound baby after a 22-month pregnancy.
Humans first tamed Asian elephants more than 4,000 years ago. In the past, humans used elephants in war. Elephants have been called the “predecessors to the tank” because of their immense size and strength. They were important to military supply lines as recently as the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
Although African elephants are harder to train than Asian, they too have worked for humans, mostly during wartime. For example, the elephants that carried Hannibal’s troops across the Alps to attack the Romans in 200 B.C. were African.
In modern times humans use elephants primarily for heavy jobs like hauling logs. An elephant is the ultimate off-road vehicle and can get tremendous traction even on slippery mud. An elephant actually walks on its toes, aided by a great flesh-heel pad that can conform to the ground.
In some remote areas of Southeast Asia it is still more economical to use elephants for work than it is to use modern machinery. Scientific researchers use elephants for transportation in the hard-to-reach, swampy areas they study, and tourists ride elephants to view wildlife in Asian reserves. Elephants are the ideal mobile viewing platform in the tall grass found in many parks.
Asia has always had a strong cultural connection to the elephant. In Chinese, the phrase “to ride an elephant” sounds the same as the word for happiness. When Thailand was called Siam, the sacred White Elephant dominated the flag and culture. According to Thai legend, in the beginning all elephants were white and flew through the air, like the clouds and rain.
Thousands of years later, a white elephant entered the side of Queen Sirimahamaya as she lay sleeping. Later she gave birth to Prince Siddhartha, the future Guatama Buddha. Among the predominantly Buddhist kingdoms of Southeast Asia, the most auspicious event possible during a monarch’s reign was the finding of a white elephant.
Elephants need a large amount of habitat because they eat so much. Humans have become their direct competitors for living space. Human populations in Africa and Asia have quadrupled since the turn of the century, the fastest growth rate on the planet. Forest and savanna habitat has been converted to cropland, pastureland for livestock, and timber for housing and fuel.
Humans do not regard elephants as good neighbors. When humans and elephants live close together, elephants raid crops, and rogue elephants (aggressive male elephants during the breeding season) rampage through villages. Local people shoot elephants because they fear them and regard them as pests.
Some countries have established culling programs: park officials or hunters kill a predetermined number of elephants to keep herds manageable and minimize human-elephant conflicts.
Hunting has been a major cause of the decline in elephant populations. Elephants became prized trophies for big-game hunters after Europeans arrived in Africa. More recently, and more devastatingly, hunters have slaughtered elephants for their ivory tusks. The ivory trade became a serious threat to elephants in the 1970s.
A sudden oil shortage caused the world economy to collapse, and ivory became more valuable than gold. In fact, ivory has been called “white gold” because it is beautiful, easily carved, durable, and pleasing to the touch. Most of the world’s ivory is carved in Japan, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries, where skilled carvers depend on a supply of ivory for their livelihoods.
Hunting elephants is no longer legal in many African countries, but poaching was widespread until very recently. For many the high price of ivory, about $100 a pound in the 1980s, was too tempting to resist. Local people often had few other ways to make a living, and subsistence farmers or herders could make more by selling the tusks of one elephant than they could make in a dozen years of farming or herding.
As the price of ivory soared, poachers became more organized, using automatic weapons, motorized vehicles, and airplanes to chase and kill thousands of elephants. To governments and revolutionaries mired in civil wars and strapped for cash, poaching ivory became a way to pay for more firearms and supplies.
Poaching has caused the collapse of elephants‘ social structure as well as decimating their numbers. Poachers target the biggest elephants because their tusks are larger. They often kill all the adults in the group, leaving young elephants without any adults to teach them migration routes, dry-season water sources, and other learned behavior. Many of Africa’s remaining elephant groups are leaderless subadults and juveniles.
There are many national parks or reserves in Africa where elephant habitat is protected. Many people believe, however, that the parks are not large enough and are too isolated from each other to allow elephant populations to recover. (See Island Biogeography). Some countries are developing refuges linked by corridors to allow seasonal migration and genetic exchange.
Human use of the same land to grow crops, however, makes it difficult to create linkages between reserves without increasing conflicts between humans and elephants.
Sometimes reserves are too successful. When there are too many elephants in a reserve for the available vegetation, they destroy the habitat. They also forage outside the park and destroy crops.
One factor that has convinced African governments to take strong measures to protect elephants is the rising importance of the tourist trade to their economies. Kenya alone receives $50 million a year from tourists coming to see elephants. The national parks bring in much-needed income, and tourism is a source of income that can continue into the future because it does not deplete wildlife populations.
Worldwide concern over the decline of the elephant led to a complete ban on the ivory trade in 1990. Elephants have been placed on Appendix I of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which means all trade in elephant parts is prohibited. Some governments have cracked down hard on poachers. In some countries, park rangers are told to shoot poachers on sight.
Not all governments support the ivory ban. In Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Botswana, for example, people farm elephants on ranches for trophy hunters. Government officials argue that trade in ivory should be regulated, not prohibited. They say countries that are managing their elephants well should be allowed to sell ivory in order to pay for conservation measures, such as park guards and equipment.
Others argue that the only effective solution is a total ban, because there is no way to distinguish ivory of elephants that were legally killed from that of elephants that were poached. The debate over the effectiveness, fairness, and wisdom of the ivory ban continues.
Asian ivory craftspeople are turning to other sources of raw material for their carvings. Some are turning to walrus tusks instead of elephant ivory, shifting hunting pressure to walruses.
Captive breeding of African elephants provides elephants for zoos so zoos do not have to take more elephants from the wild for display. The Jacksonville Zoological Park has established a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the African elephant.
Do you find it odd that a species that still has hundreds of thousand of individuals is considered endangered?
Why do you think elephants are regarded as endangered?
Which elephant’s chances for survival are better, the African or the Asian? What factors lead you to this conclusion?
Do you think banning trade in ivory affects other species?
If the ban on trade in ivory is successful in stopping poaching, do you think the elephant’s survival is assured? Is your answer the same for African and Asian elephants?
Are reserves the solution to the problem of habitat loss? What else could or should be done?