MetroZoo, Miami, FL
Featured in Elegant Elephants – 6/18/09
Featured in the Woman Photographer – 3/09
Placed in the Top Ten of The Hungry Elephant challenge in the Elegant Elephants group – 6/18/09
The Asian or Asiatic Elephant (Elephas maximus), sometimes known by the name of one of its subspecies – the Indian Elephant, is one of the three living species of elephant, and the only living species of the genus Elephas. It is the largest living land animal in Asia. The species is found primarily in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Indochina and parts of Nepal and Indonesia and Thailand. It is considered endangered, with between 41,410 and 52,345 left in the wild.
This animal is widely domesticated, and has been used in forestry in South and Southeast Asia for centuries and also in ceremonial purposes. Historical sources indicate that they were sometimes used during the harvest season primarily for milling. Wild elephants attract tourist money to the areas where they can most readily be seen, but damage crops, and may enter villages to raid gardens.
The Asian elephant is smaller than its African relatives; the easiest way to distinguish the two is that the Asian elephant has smaller ears. The Asian Elephant tends to grow to around two to four meters (7–12 feet) in height and 3,000–5,000 kilograms (6,500–11,000 pounds) in weight.
The Asian Elephant has other differences from its African relatives, including a more arched back than the African, one semi-prehensile “finger” at the tip of its trunk as opposed to two, four nails on each hind foot instead of three, and 19 pairs of ribs instead of 21. Also, unlike the African elephant, the female Asian Elephant usually lacks tusks; if tusks — in that case called “tushes” — are present, they are barely visible, and only seen when the female opens her mouth. The enamel plates of the molars are greater in number and closer together in Asian elephants. Some males may also lack tusks; these individuals are called “makhnas”.
The sizes of elephants in the wild have been exaggerated in the past. However, record elephants may have measured as high as 12 feet (3.7 m) at the shoulder. Height is often estimated using the rule of thumb of twice the forefoot circumference.
The height of the adult male does not exceed nine feet, and that of the female eight feet; but these dimensions are occasionally considerably exceeded. George P. Sanderson measured a male standing nine feet seven inches at the shoulder, and measuring twenty-six feet two and one-half inches from the tip of the trunk to the extremity of the tail; and he records others respectively reaching nine feet eight inches and nine feet ten inches at the shoulder. An elephant shot by General Kinloch stood upward of ten feet one inch; and another measured by Sanderson ten feet seven and one-half inches. These dimensions are, however, exceeded by a specimen killed by the late Sir Victor Brooke, which is reported to have reached a height of eleven feet: and there is a rumor of a Ceylon elephant of twelve feet. That such giants may occasionally exist is indicated by a skeleton in the Museum at Calcutta, which is believed to have belonged to an individual living between 1856 and 1860 in the neighborhood of the Rajamahal hills, in Bengal. As now mounted this enormous skeleton stands eleven feet three inches at the shoulders, but Mr. O. S. Fraser, in a letter to the Asian newspaper, states that it is made to stand too low, and that its true height was several inches more. If this be so, there can be no doubt that, when alive, this elephant must have stood fully twelve feet.
A record tusk described by George P. Sanderson measured five feet along the curve, with a girth of sixteen inches (406 mm) at the point of emergence from the jaw, the weight being one hundred and four and one-half pounds. This was from an elephant killed by Sir V. Brooke and measured eight feet in length, and nearly seventeen inches in circumference, and weighed ninety pounds. This tusk’s weight is, however, exceeded by [the weight of] a shorter tusk of about six feet in length which weighed one hundred pounds. The heaviest wild male recorded was shot by the Maharajah of Susang in the Garo Hills of Assam, India in 1924, and was 8 tonnes (8.8 short tons), 3.35 m (11.1 ft) tall and 8.06 m (26.6 ft) long.
In the wild, elephant herds follow well-defined seasonal migration routes. These are made around the monsoon seasons, often between the wet and dry zones, and it is the task of the eldest elephant to remember and follow the traditional migration routes. When human farms are founded along these old routes there is often considerable damage done to crops, and it is common for elephants to be killed in the ensuing conflicts. The adult Asian Elephant has no natural predators, but young elephants may fall prey to tigers.
A herd of wild Indian elephants in the Jim Corbett National Park, India.
Elephants life spans have been exaggerated in the past and live on average for 60 years in the wild and 80 in captivity. They eat 10% of their body weight each day, which for adults is between 170-200 kilograms of food per day. They need 80–200 litres of water a day, and use more for bathing. They sometimes scrape the soil for minerals.
Elephants use infrasound to communicate; this was first noted by the Indian naturalist M. Krishnan and later studied by Katherine Payne.
Bull elephants are usually solitary, and fight over females during the breeding season. Younger bulls may form small groups. Males reach sexual maturity during their 15th year, after which they annually enter “musth”. This is a period where the testosterone level is high (up to 60 times greater) and they become extremely aggressive. Secretions containing pheromones occur during this period, from the temporal glands on the forehead.
Female elephants live in small groups. They have a matriarchal society, and the group is led by the oldest female. The herd consists of relatives. An individual reaches sexual maturity at 9-15 years of age. The gestation period is 18–22 months, and the female gives birth to one calf, or occasionally twins. The calf is fully developed by the 19th month but stays in the womb to grow so that it can reach its mother to feed. At birth, the calf weighs about 100 kg (220 lb), and is suckled for up to 2–3 years. Females stay on with the herd, but mature males are chased away.
Females produce sex pheromones; a principal component thereof, (Z)-7-dodecen-1-yl acetate, has also been found to be a sex pheromone in numerous species of insects.
At most seasons of the year the Indian elephant is a timid animal, much more ready to flee from a foe than to make an attack. Solitary rogues are, however, frequently an exception to this rule, and sometimes make unprovoked attacks on passers-by. Rogue elephant sometimes take up a position near a road, and make it impassable to travellers. Females with calves are at all times dangerous to approach. Contrary to what is stated to be the case with the African species, when an Indian elephant makes a charge, it does so with its trunk tightly curled up, and it makes its attack by trampling its victim with its feet or knees, or, if a male, by pinning it to the ground with its tusks. During musth the male elephant is highly dangerous, not only to human beings, but to its fellow animals. At the first indications of this, domestic elephants are secured tightly to prevent any mishaps; xylazine is also used. While elephant charges are often displays of aggression that do not go beyond threats, some elephants, such as rogues, may actually attack.