“I want to see an oliphant,” said Samwise to Frodo.
I believe the elephant is my favorite animal in all of South Africa. They are huge and stately.
Joan said never drive over the elephant dung, it is full of thorns. Although elephants spend about 16 hours a day eating 300-600 pounds (140–270 kilograms) of leaves, bark, fruit, shrubs, grasses and herbs they only digest about 40% of what they eat.
African elephants are the largest land animal alive today. Males stand 10-13 feet (3.2-4 meters) at the shoulder and weigh 7700-26000 pounds (3500-12000 kilograms). The female is smaller, standing about 9.8 feet (3 meters) at the shoulder. They typically live for 50 to 70 years.
Elephants live in a structured social order and the social lives of male and female elephants are very different. The females spend their entire lives in tightly knit family groups made up of mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts. These groups are led by the eldest female, or matriarch. When a group gets too big, a few of the elder daughters will break off and form their own small group.
A female will usually be ready to breed around the age of thirteen, when she comes into estrus, or heat, and attracts a male through scent and audible signals. Because the female can usually outrun the male, she does not have to mate with every male that approaches her. Yet the mating season is short and females are only able to conceive for a few days each year. After a twenty-two-month pregnancy, the mother gives birth to a calf that weighs about 250 pounds (115 kg) and stands over 2.5 feet (75 cm) tall. Elephants have a very long development and a new calf is usually the center of attention for herd members.
The life of the adult male is very different. As he gets older, he begins to spend more time at the edge of the herd, gradually going off on his own for hours or days at a time. Eventually, days become weeks, and somewhere around the age of fourteen, the mature male, or bull, sets out from his natal group for good. While males do live primarily solitary lives, they will occasionally form loose associations with other males. These groups are called bachelor herds.
The dominance battles between males can look very fierce, but typically they inflict very little injury. Most of the bouts are in the form of aggressive displays and bluffs like spreading its ears out wide to look more massive and imposing. Ordinarily, the smaller, younger, and less confident animal will back off before any real damage can be done.
Elephant Museum Letaba Rest Camp
With a mass just over 11 pounds (5 kilograms), elephant brains are larger than those of any other land animal. A wide variety of behaviors associated with intelligence have been attributed to elephants. Gender can be determined by the shape of the skull, males have rounded foreheads while females look rather square.
Elephant heart Elephant Museum Letaba Rest Camp
An adult heart can weigh between 26-61 pounds (12-28 kilograms) making up about 0.5% of the total body weight, which is similar to the relative weight of a human heart.
Elephants make a number of sounds when communicating. The famous trumpet call made when the animal blows through its nostrils and used during excitement like startlement, a cry for help or rage. Plus they produce a low-frequency rumbling which can travel in the air and through the ground up to 6 miles (10 kilometers). They have an exceptional sense of hearing but not only through the ears. The trunk is very sensitive to vibrations as are their feet. Elephants are observed listening by putting trunks on the ground and carefully positioning their feet.
The proboscis, or trunk, is a fusion of the nose and upper lip, elongated and specialized to become the elephant’s most important and versatile appendage. African elephants are equipped with two fingerlike projections at the tip of their trunk. The elephant’s trunk is sensitive enough to pick up a single blade of grass, yet strong enough to rip the branches off a tree. They will graze on grass or reach up into trees to grasp leaves, fruit, or entire branches. If the desired food item is too high up, the elephant will wrap its trunk around the tree or branch and shake its food loose or sometimes simply knock the tree down altogether.
The trunk is also used for drinking. Elephants suck water up into the trunk—up to 15 quarts (14 liters) at a time—and then blow it into their mouth. Elephants also suck up water to spray on their body during bathing. On top of this watery coating, the animal will then spray dirt and mud, which dries off and acts as a protective sunscreen. Wallowing also aids the skin in regulating body temperatures. Elephants have difficulty in releasing heat through the skin because, in proportion to their body size, they have very little of it.
This appendage also plays a key role in many social interactions. Familiar elephants will greet each other by entwining their trunks, much like a handshake. They also use them while play-wrestling, caressing during courtship and mother-child interactions, and for dominance displays.
The large flapping ears of an elephant are also very important for temperature regulation. Elephant ears are made of a very thin layer of skin stretched over cartilage and a rich network of blood vessels. On hot days, elephants will flap their ears constantly, creating a slight breeze. This breeze cools the surface blood vessels, and then the cooler blood gets circulated to the rest of the animal’s body. The hot blood entering the ears can be cooled as much as 10 F (12.22 C) before returning to the body.
Although they appear to be flat-footed, they are in fact digitigrade meaning they walk on the toes. Their weight rests on the tip of each toe and a fibrous cushion of cartilage under the heel that acts like a shock absorber. The feet of an elephant are nearly round. Under the elephant’s weight the foot swells, but it gets smaller when the weight is removed. They can attain a speed of about 18mph (30kph).
Both male and female African elephants have large tusks that can reach over 10 feet (3 meters) in length and weigh over 200 pounds (90 kilograms) and grow continuously at about 7 inches (18 cm) a year.
57 year old Mufunyane
Tusks are used to dig for water, salt, and roots; to debark trees to eat the bark; to dig into baobab trees to get at the pulp inside; and to move trees and branches when clearing a path. In addition, they are used for marking trees to establish territory and occasionally as weapons.
Like humans being right or left handed, elephants are right or left tusked so uneven wear can be seen on the dominant tusk. Yet unlike most mammals, which grow baby teeth and then replace them with a permanent set of adult teeth, elephants have cycles of tooth rotation throughout their entire life. Molars are replaced five times in an average elephant’s lifetime moving horizontally, like a conveyor belt. New teeth grow in at the back of the mouth, pushing older teeth toward the front, where they wear down with use and the remains fall out. Eventually, when the last teeth fall out, the elephant will be unable to eat and will die of starvation.
Healthy adults have no natural predators although lions may take calves or weak individuals. They are, however, threatened by human intrusion and poaching. The South African elephant population more than doubled, rising from 8,000 to over 20,000, in the thirteen years after a 1995 ban on the trade in elephant ivory.
The elephant’s tusk is both its blessing and its curse because of human’s desire for ivory and their senseless slaughter to get it. The visible, ivory part of the tusk is made of dentine with an outer layer of enamel. Elephant ivory is unique when viewed in cross-section revealing criss-cross lines that form a series of diamond shapes. Elephant ivory has been used for making many things including billiard balls, piano keys, jewelry and carvings.
Another threat to elephant’s survival in general is the ongoing cultivation of their habitats with increasing risk of conflicts of interest with human cohabitants. Even official reserves like Kruger National Park with fences may restrict migration, or have to deal with over crowding. Yet these special places may be the last hope for the magnificent elephant in this changing world.
This post was originally published after my first visit to South Africa in 2010. It was also the first time I’d seen these majestic creatures in the wild. I returned to South Africa during 2013 and thankfully saw elephants again. Yet I worry that the greed for ivory will diminish the species to extinction. To honor World Elephant Day I am reposting this amazing experience.
Geogypsy is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com