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THE AFRICAN ELEPHANT – Loxodonta africana
Location Captured: “Krugr National Park” South Africa.
The adult male African elephant is the bulkiest and heaviest of all land mammals.
The weight of a prime bull can be as much as 6000kg with the heaviest recorded just over 6500kg.
African elephant sub-species occur throughout east and west central Africa, where only the forest elephant is significantly different, but only as regards its smaller size and darker hide.
The elephants of the Far East are markedly different both in shape and temperament.
Although there is only one sub-species in southern Africa, the habitat tends to influence their behavioral patterns and even appearance.
There are two major extremes of habitat in which elephant are found in our sub-region-the arid and waterless Kaokoveld and the dense forests of Knysa (Cape Province). By far the largest proportion of elephants is, however, found in the bushveld country. The desert elephants of the waterless Kaokoveld need just as much food and water to survive as the other elephants. They are extremely careful in their eating, stripping off only the food needed, as if aware of how delicately balanced is nature in their arid and sparsely vegetated habitat. The Kaokoveld elephants are tall, scrawny and tough. The possible extinction of these endangered desert elephants holds severe threat for the ecology of the Kaokoveld. They are the only creatures able to keep open the watering points in the shifting sands and if they disappear so will much of the fauna of the area dependant upon this water.
Elephants are generally placid, but can be extremely dangerous if threatened or when they are in season. There are two aggressive behavioral patterns: If the animal is not serious about its intent, but just wishes to assert itself or show dominance, it may make a mock charge, trumpeting loudly, with the trunk probably extended and the ears flapping. If, however, the animal is intent on mischief, then the trunk may be rolled up for protection of left dangling, the ears are laid flat against the head and the tusks pointed directly at the quarry. The charge made is deadly in its silence.
Undeniably the glory, yet the downfall of this magnificent beast, is the bulk and quality of its ivory tusks. The heaviest recorded pair was an incredible almost 200kg, recorded from an animal from central Africa. The record in our region is no more than 90kg.
Elephants live to about 70 years, or sometimes slightly longer, with their age-span strictly controlled by their dentition. They have only six pairs of molars, with two in use at a time. As one pair is used they move forward along the jaw and are worn and splintered away by constant chewing and the roots are finally absorbed. That pair is replaced by the next which are longer and wider. Finally, when all six teeth on watch side have been worn away, the elephant has attained old age. Now unable to chew its food, it dies from a lack of nutrition.
The female differs from the male in having a slightly more angular and prominent forehead and a slightly straighter back. Tusks are generally smaller, although this becomes noticeable only when compared to tusks of older bulls. The entire weight of the massive skull and tusks is carried by the forelegs which are larger than the back legs. The front feet are more rounded than the hind, which are smaller and more oval. When the elephant flaps its ears blood supply in the heavy concentration of blood vessels near to the surface on the back of the ears cools, lowering the body heat of the animal.
Elephants do not go of to die in special “elephant graveyards” as popular legend would have it. Their remains do not litter the veld as the scavengers, large and small, ultimately remove all evidence even of this the largest of all land animals. Due to their large size they do not have predators in the normal sense, but poaching and culling have taken their toll of the African elephant.
These social animals are ruled by matriarchy. The senior cow in the family takes care of the needs of the family. Sometimes families join to form herds, but the larger bulls join the herd only when the cows are in oestrus, leaving again after their task is done.
Bulls rarely fight over the cows and may mate with several in the herd. A single pinkish coloured, hairy calf is produced and rarely a twin. A clear place near water is chosen for the birthing and sometimes other females attend to guard the mother. The young are at risk and are strictly guarded by the mother and herd.
FOOD: Elephants are strict vegetarians: tree-bark and roots, leaves, soother branches, grass and fruit is eaten, such as the baobab fruit and acacia pods.
They consume prodigious quantities of food. Where man has interfered with nature and elephant populations permitted to expand unnaturally, the vegetation has suffered severely. Large branches are ripped off and the tender components eaten, smaller trees are sometimes toppled to make their tender crowns available, even the huge succulent, soft pulp baobab tree trunks are chewed around until topple and the entire tree is eventually consumed.