When considering mankind, elephants would be far better off without tusks. But the tusks of an elephant are actually teeth, their incisors. They begin protruding out of their mouths after age 2 and in adult males can grow at an average of 7 inches each year. Elephants use them throughout their days, digging for food and water, clearing vegetation out of their paths, and as weapons of self-defense.
Male elephants leave their birth families as they enter puberty about age 13. The parting can be a sad and challenging experience for them. Once out on their own, they either live primarily solitary lives or join up with other males they come across to form bachelor groups in which new bonds can be developed. Later in life, males can rejoin female led families as their threat to the gene pool fades away.
During prehistoric times in Africa, both elephants and humans adapted themselves to the environment and at about the same time period. As time went by, both species emigrated to Europe and Asia, developed regional migrations to secure food and water, developed longer lifespans, developed complex societies, and advanced intricate ways of communicating among themselves.
In the natural world, excluding aberrant mankind, predation occurs primarily to secure food for survival. Baby elephants are occasionally preyed upon by lions but all in all elephants have no predators except man. Far and away, the primary reason man kills elephants, old and young, is to take their tusks, leaving the poor elephants body to rot away under the hot African sun.
Like humans, elephants have a sense of humor and enjoy being playful. This play is very common among young elephants but shows up now and then among older elephants too. Often the play will involve plants, sticks, rocks, or bones. How one elephant invites another to join in play is amusing in and of itself.
Elephants experience all of the same emotions as we human beings, and they’re not bashful about expressing these feelings. Over the course of just a few hours, elephants will clearly demonstrate feelings of joy, anger, compassion, and love. It’s the feeling of love that is on display almost constantly among elephant families.
Along with their size, elephants are most notable for their trunks. These conglomerations of upper lip and nose are a miracle of the natural world. With their trunks, elephants breathe, smell, grasp items, touch, communicate, and carry things. Each trunk contains over 40,000 muscles, this compared to the entire human body that has only 639.
Elephants are very socially aware and like humans will rally to help or console another elephant in trouble. They’ll care for the sick, the injured, and attempt to drive off threatening humans and predatory wildlife. Their sensitivity toward each other is as high as any other species in the living, breathing world.
Like humans, female elephants can have babies until they’re almost 50 years old. Unlike humans, each elephant pregnancy lasts about 22 months. In a stroke of wisdom, elephant mothers tend to give birth to their babies during the cool, dark night.
African elephants live in gender-based groups. Adult males live with their birth families until puberty and then move off to live alone or join up with other mature males to form bachelor families. Most females will live out their entire lives in groups with their mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters. These groups are usually led by the oldest, most knowledgeable female, the matriarch.
African elephants have found a way to survive in each and every ecosystem on the continent. They live on the savanna of course but they also live in deserts, rainforests, mountains, coastal regions, and swamps. Their abilities to adapt to an environment equals humans in every respect.
Elephants need to eat at least 200 pounds of food each day to survive. Similarly, they need to consume up to 50 gallons of water each day. These intake requirements lead them to spend as much as 18 hours each day feeding, watering, and locating both.
The average size of an elephant family varies throughout Africa but commonly has between 5 and 10 members. The environment tends to be the determining factor. For example, elephant families that live in the challenging ecosystems of the jungle and the desert tend to have smaller families, those living on the savanna with plenty of room and resources tend larger. In fact, in the savanna and grasslands, it’s not uncommon to see families of 12 to 20 and in a few select locations unique “super herds” of several hundred elephants will band together.
As big as Africa is, there is a limited amount of space for both elephants and humans to live in. As the human population increases, there is less room for elephants. In 1950, Africa’s human population was 228 million. In 2015, the population exploded to nearly 1.2 billion. Numerous African countries have birth rates averaging 6 children per woman. Needless to say, those elephants fortunate enough to have survived the worst of the killing for ivory period now face a new threat, no place to live.
Traditionally, many of Africa’s tribes have revered the elephant. They stood to the people as a symbol of power, strength, intelligence, and cooperation. Most unfortunate for the elephants, too many humans have lost sight of their traditional values, opting for exploitation and extermination.
Elephants have incredible memories, and in fact seem to never forget. They can remember other elephants, even if years have passed since the last interaction. They can remember countless locations where food and water can be sourced, over an entire region, and even if unvisited for a period of years. And, they can remember individual humans, those who were loving towards them and those who were not.
Elephants have super-natural abilities to hear. Using their ears, their trunks, and the soles of their feet, elephants can hear one another’s calls up to 2.5 miles away and in some cases at least six miles away. Further, there have been reports of an elephant’s message traveling for several hundred miles. The secret is in using the ground, not the air, to transmit communications via seismic vibrations. Mankind is only beginning to attempt an understanding of this incredible ability.
Elephants have very poor digestion. In fact, it seems they only process half of all they eat. As vegetarians who eat a lot of plants with seeds, this means that their inefficiency is a boon to other wildlife, to the ecosystem as a whole, as their manure disperses seeds that bring new plant life across their entire habitat.
Given the close-knit nature of elephant families and the incredible amount of time spent together, the individual elephant rarely records an experience unknown to others. It is in this way that information is widely shared and the chances of survival in an oftentimes harsh environment increased.
Through their powers of high awareness, elephants are capable of empathy, just like humans. Over and over, they show concern for each other. Over and over they react to each other’s expressed feelings. And over and over they will rise to an occasion to demonstrate what humans call heroism.
The African elephant is indeed the world’s largest land animal. In height, they can reach 13 feet at the shoulders. In weight, they can exceed 13,000 pounds. As powerful as they are, they prey on no other being for food, they’re vegetarians, and they generally pass through life in this world as peaceful, harmless watchmen.
The skin of an elephant is so sensitive they can feel a bug land on it. To protect themselves from irritating bugs, moisture loss, and the burning sun, elephants are continually coating themselves with mud, dust, or both. They do this by rolling on the ground or by applying the covering with their trunks. All in all, it’s challenging for the human mind to comprehend the size of these beings and the incredible sensitivities they possess.
Despite their great weight and bulk, elephants are excellent swimmers. They will regularly swim across raging creeks and rivers in their journeys. Their success lies in their buoyancy, paddling their sizable legs, and breathing through their trunks that are held up above the water’s surface like a snorkel.
The lifespan of African elephants averages 60 to 70 years, just about the same as the average lifespan of humans worldwide which is 70.5 years. Living so many years is quite a feat given elephant’s relative lack of sleep throughout their lifetimes and the stresses of moving their hulking bodies about.
Young elephants will commonly lay down for a brief midday nap when given the chance. These naps don’t last very long but seem to restore them just enough. Elephants in general don’t get very much sleep, averaging 4 to 6 hours each day.
Elephants will mourn their dead loved ones just like humans do. For months following a passing, family members will visit the remains, touching the bones in particular and making unique noises.
Elephants have roughly the same body temperature as humans, averaging 96.6 degrees. They are very sensitive to heat, seeking shade whenever its available and cooling their blood by a unique process. In their giant ears, the blood vessels pass very near the surface of their thin skin there. By flapping their ears the passage of air over the blood vessels provides a cooling effect.
If allowed to age and die naturally, nature engineered elephants with only one limitation, their teeth. Unlike humans who grow baby teeth and then adult teeth, elephants cycle new teeth in and out six times throughout a lifetime. Once the last set is lost, the ability to eat satisfactorily is lost and the end of life soon follows.
Centuries ago, some elephants developed a genetic tendency toward extra-large tusks. For many individuals, these tusks could reach the ground and weigh incredible amounts. “Tuskers” they were called by the white hunters of the 1800’s who came to Africa to kill them and as the human demand for ivory increased, the number of tuskers decreased. Today there are very few such elephants left alive anywhere in Africa.
Estimates indicate that at least 25 million elephants lived in Africa in the year 1800. By 1900, accurate estimates indicate 12 million elephants lived there. By 2000, just over 3 million survived. And today, as the relentless crush of humanity on the earth continues, there are only 415,000 elephants left alive in Africa. The elephant death toll at the hands of humans is in the countless millions.
As the 20th century progressed, scientists no longer relied on dead or captive elephant specimens they were given access to. Instead, they went to Africa to see for themselves how elephants lived. Deviating from the old practice of giving subjects numbers, the elephants they studied were given names. Meet Esau. He is the nephew of the famous elephant Echo, studied by the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.
I’ve shared with you here many of the things I know about elephants. But what I can’t share are my feelings for them. After having spent 6 months of my life out in the wilds with them, witnessing their amazing intelligence and ability to love, words are of no use.