Elephant Basics

There are two species of African elephant and one species of Asian elephant (although some scientists believe the Borneo Pygmy elephant is a second Asian species). The African elephant is the world's largest land animal, with males weighing between 5,000 to 6,000 kg and standing between 3 - 3.3 m in height, while females are slightly smaller, weighing 3,000 - 3,500 kg and standing at 2.5 m tall. Asian elephants are the largest land mammal in Asia. Among the Asian subspecies, there are physical trait differences that are related to their geographic location. For example, Ceylon (Sri Lankan) elephants tend to have larger ears, which are useful for regulating their body temperature in the hot climate of Sri Lanka. All elephants have relatively large ears, which can measure 2 x 1.5 m in size, and they have long, muscular trunks. African elephants have two finger-like tips on the end of their trunk, which are used for handling and manipulating objects, while Asian elephants have a single tip on the end of their trunk.

Elephants have rich social lives

Elephants are long-lived, slow-growing mammals who can live up to 70 years old in the wild. Perhaps more so than any other animal, elephants show a high degree of social complexity. Female elephants live within a matriarchal clan society, with a basic herd consisting of a mother and her offspring and relatives. Typically, the size of female elephant herds range between 9 and 11 elephants - larger herds tend to split in two, but continue occupying the same home range and associating socially. The herd's welfare depends on the matriarch's leadership - she sets the herd's direction and pace, and the rest of the herd follows her. Even while browsing and feeding, herd members seldom stray further than 50 yards from a neighbour.

The cohesive structure of the herd serves as a defense against predators - they will cluster around the matriarch, with the vulnerable calves protected in the middle. Whether they flee or charge in the face of danger is up to the matriarch. However, if something happens to the matriarch, such as her being shot, the rest of the herd may run around in blind panic, but they typically don't abandon each other. In fact, they may linger, refuse to leave the matriarch's side, and be killed as well.  Once the herd's matriarch becomes too old or sick to continue leading, approximately 60 years old, she is replaced by the next oldest cow, and the feeble one either leaves the herd or is abandoned. Older elephants sometimes end their days in swamps, where they are able to consume quantities of herbage as their last set of molars wears out. 

The cohesive structure of the herd also provides an excellent social environment in which
young elephants can learn from others and mature. Young elephants learn social behaviours from family members, who play a critical role in their social development. By following their mother's and relatives' responses to other elephants and situations, the youngsters learn who their friends and family are, and who poses a threat. Foraging, mothering and communication skills (and cultural behaviours) are also learned from observing family members.

The long lives of elephants.

More about the social complexities of elephant herds.

Elephant learning and cooperation.

Elephants have complex methods of communication

Elephants are highly intelligent, social animals that communicate using a variety of methods, such as touching, body language, scents, and acoustic and seismic sounds. They use these various forms of communication to convey information about their physiological (sexual, body condition, identification) and emotional (fearful, playful, joyful, angry) state, as well as communicate specific statements about their intentions or desires. Elephants can also produce low frequency sounds called infrasound that are used in long-distance communication. The use of chemical or olfactory cues is central to elephant communication, and they often raise their trunks to smell the air, or use the tips of their trunks to explore the ground as well as the genitals, temporal glands, or mouths of other elephants.

More about how elephants communicate.

Elephants frequent a range of warm habitats

Depending on the resources and available food and water sources, elephant home ranges can be as small as 14 square kilometers in a groundwater forest (such as in Tanzania), to over 3,500 square kilometers in arid savanna. Also, depending on available food and water sources, elephants may walk substantial distances almost every day. An elephant's environment is rich with natural sights, sounds, smells, textures and a diversity of terrain types, such as hills and mountains, valleys, grassland, desert, forests, swamps, rivers and lakes.
Elephants may occasionally experience relatively low temperatures for short periods in certain parts of their range, but these periods are typically short in duration and nothing at all like the cold weather or winter conditions found in temperate regions, such as in Canada.

Formerly, African elephants were found everywhere south of the Sahara, where water and trees were found. However, ranges and numbers have declined during the 20th and 21st centuries, due to ivory hunting, poaching, human-elephant conflict and accelerated human population growth in elephant habitat. A catastrophic decline began in the 1970s and 1980s, as a soaring demand for ivory products made poaching as profitable as drug dealing. In 1981, the African elephant population was estimated at 1.3 million elephants, and by 1986, this had fallen to 750,000 elephants. Losses of up to 80% were recorded in most countries of eastern and central Africa, which convinced conservationists that stopping the ivory trade was the only way to stop the elephant carnage. Thanks to worldwide concern over the elephants' plight, most major ivory-importing countries, such as Japan, India, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States, joined a moratorium on the trade of ivory. This was followed by a dramatic drop in the price of raw ivory in 1990 and a corresponding drop in poaching in East Africa.

Traditionally, Asian elephants were found in Iraq, south of the Himalayas, throughout Southeast Asia and in southern China, as far north as the Yangtze River. However, they are forest animals and their habitats have since been demolished for farms and villages. Asian elephants are now mostly confined to hilly and mountainous regions in parts of India and Southeast Asia, including Sumatra and Borneo, where human contact has been minimal. These small, fragmented habitats are ill-suited to sustain Asian elephants.

Today there are perhaps a million African elephants and between 35,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants in the wild. The most significant threats they face today are illegal poaching for ivory and meat, habitat encroachment and fragmentation, death in human-elephant conflict situations and starvation during periods of severe drought. Less severe threats include disease, injury and predation.

Elephants are vegetarians - the dominant part of their diet consists of grass, but also branches, leaves, fruits, buds, and tubers. Since elephants are not able to digest their food efficiently, they spend a great deal of time foraging and grazing. In the wild, elephants may be active for up to 20 hours per day, a significant portion of that time spent acquiring the several hundreds pounds of vegetation they eat daily. Foraging may involve a broad range of movements and behaviours over a diversity of habitat types and keeps elephants both physically and mentally active.