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elephant familyThe Elephant: A Reluctant Potentate
by Marjorie Dorfman

What is it about the elephant that makes him such a fascinating creature? Is there a difference between those that come from Africa and those from Asia and India? These and other ponderous questions will be addressed. Read on, if you dare to care.

Elephants are the largest land mammals in the world and yet whenever they come to mind, I can only think of gentleness and grace. Despite their size, they possess a delicate sensitivity that makes them unique to all the other creatures of the earth. The modern day African and Asian elephants belong to the order Proboscidea. In the past there were some 350 members, but today only two remain: Elephas maximus and Loxodonia africano. Both the Asian and Indian elephants belong to the same sub species, Elephas maximus. At one time, the names Asian and Indian were interchangeable, and there is no technical difference between the two. There are some differences, however, between the savannah African elephants and their smaller, forest counterparts. An adult male savannah elephant weighs about 12,000 pounds and stands roughly 10 feet tall at the shoulder. The smaller forest elephant weighs 10,000 pounds and has smaller, straighter tusks which are designed for negotiating routes through dense foliage.

elephant mother The vast African continent contains many ecosystems, ranging from savannahs, to deserts and impenetrable rain forests. Although each region contains its own array of wild beasts, roaming through every one is the elephant. They can be found from west India to China in the north, and Sumatra and Borneo in the east. All elephants possess the same tough hide. (The Latin name for elephant is pachyderm, or thick-skinned.) But while their skin may be durable, elephants still need protection from insects and the hot African sun. Wallowing in a mud bath cools down an elephant as well as providing an extra layer of cover.

Perhaps it is the very size of these creatures that evokes parables of strength and immeasurable courage and nobility. While traveling through Italy, I met an old man who wore a solid gold elephant with ruby eyes suspended from a heavy gold chain around his neck. When I asked him about his choice, he simply replied: "The elephant is the only animal who doesn’t know his own strength. He, therefore, reminds me of my own weaknesses." Wherever that stands in the hierarchy of philosophical thought is anyone’s guess, but the National Geographic special I saw on the Discovery Channel some years back says it all. Film captured an incredible moment in the natural order of things. A tortoise was resting beside a watering hole when a troupe of elephants approached. The tortoise unknowingly, was blocking the elephants’ path to the water. With all the tenderness of a soft caress, the leader elephant delicately pushed the tortoise to one side with the edge of one of its enormous feet so that they could pass. The care it took not to inflict pain or trauma was poignant and memorable to behold.

Regardless of their environment, the social behaviors of elephants remain the same. A calf is usually born into an extended family, headed by an older female who serves as a matriarch. Families are groups of females with their young. Adult males leave the herd at 14 years of age and either roam alone or join other bull elephants in "bachelor herds," rejoining females only at breeding times. (I wonder what their divorce rate is with such an obviously carnal, but otherwise non-demanding arrangement.) The mother is responsible for providing the 250-pound newborn with milk, but the whole herd participates in caretaking and protection. The mother receives help from babysitters known as "allomothers," aunts, sisters and female cousins who thus learn how to care for babies. Since elephants bear young only once every few years, each newborn calf is essential to the herd’s ultimate survival.

After five years of rearing this young elephant, the mother gives birth to a new calf, weaning the now adolescent calf at the same time. By then, the young elephant weighs nearly a ton and has learned how to forage on available vegetation. Young bulls begin to wander beyond the family’s protective circle at the early age of six. As the young elephant grows, it learns how to become independent by the example set by the others. A calf will begin to experiment with its trunk, using it to grasp grass and other solid food, at about four months of age. But there can be no question that it takes a lot of practice to master the more than 40,000 muscles that render the elephant’s long snout so much mobility (probably more than it takes to get a chance to play at Carnegie Hall).

having an apppleElephants are unique creatures in many ways, not the least of which is their ownership of an incredibly versatile, elongated probiscus. Their trunks, with the two finger-like points on its end, can pick up fruit the size of a marble or a branch a foot thick. They provide a means for smelling, breathing and touching, not to mention drinking and eating. Mothers caress their young with their trunks; calves use theirs to investigate everything from plants to playmates. Trunks also act as hoses, whether for a drink or dust bath (a coating of dust repels sun and insects). To drink, an elephant sucks water into its trunk, pokes the open end into its mouth and releases the water to let it pass down its gullet.

During the dry season, an elephant will dig holes to find underground springs, drawing as much as two gallons at a time with its trunk. The water holes also give elephants access to important mineral sources buried deep beneath the surface. These open wells are a source of water for other wild life as well. After they leave an area, smaller creatures rush to the watering holes dug by the elephants. In their own way, elephants provide for their environment as well as themselves, as they daily create new paths through the thick forests, excavate trees in open savannahs and unearth water whenever it is needed. Plucking fruit from trees with their flexible trunks provides not only food for the elephants, but also regeneration for the forests. When the elephants excrete the seeds of the fruits, they sprout in fertile dung piles and create new trees in other parts of the forest. Recent studies have shown that 90 different tree species depend on hungry elephants for their survival.

The mating patterns of all species offer important insights into their family structures and life cycle behaviors. Elephants are unique in that they do not confine their mating to a specific time of year, unlike most other creatures in the wild. Once the bull finishes with the process, he leaves the herd, highlighting the importance of the matriarch who remains. She is usually the oldest and most experienced, and when she dies the next oldest takes over. The matriarchal society consists of her female offspring and their young. In some cases, it may include one of the matriarch’s sisters and her offspring as well.

An elephant family will split depending on its size, the amount of available food and how well they get along. A basic African unit contains six to twelve members. Families of twelve or more are not unheard of, although not as common. Even though the males separate upon puberty to join other males, the groups are still linked, as they often travel together throughout the range. These are called "bond groups," which should surprise only those with little imagination.

The sound structure of elephants is very much advanced. Over the course of the last few decades, there have been many studies completed on the infrasound hearing capabilities of elephants. According to Katy Payne, the leading authority on this subject, elephants can and do communicate over long distances. "They respond," according to Payne, "to each other’s loud calls from distances as great as four kilometers away." Her discovery of infrasonic communication has opened the door to understanding the social world of elephants. Her research has found that elephants do most of their calling in the late afternoon. This is jungle etiquette, to say the least, since during the night in the African bush lions and tigers are awake and hunting for their next take-out meal.

The elephant’s sound structure allows for distress signals and other communication to be sent out and received by other elephants. It can be easily observed by the animal’s sudden reaction: lifting its head while drinking, bathing or eating or acting in a peculiar fashion. It may be responding to a signal of danger or just a female sending out mating calls. At the very least, it is a revolutionary form of social communication within the animal kingdom. The fact that females are only really receptive to males just a few days every three or four years presents a small window of opportunity in a big land to allow for the biggest bull to find a receptive mate. Being able to communicate over vast distances brings the concept of "reaching out and touching someone" to new heights.

walking awayElephant feelings are not the easiest of things for humans to read or measure. This is due partly to the fact that we have no knowledge of their secret language of expression. Therefore, only the most blatant of responses can be understood. Elephants do experience both joy and grieving. Joy can be observed when an elephant is greeting a friend or family member, after the birth of a baby elephant and when playing games. It takes place in a kind of ceremony in which elephants will spin around, defecate and urinate. With their heads held high and ears flapping, they fill the air with a symphony of trumpets, rumbles, screams and roars.

Elephants love to play games. Usually, a play session will begin with trumpeting and may involve involving throwing objects, twisting and interacting with those nearest to them. According to Douglas Chadwick’s book, The Fate of the Elephant, an observer, Joyce Pool, recorded the following story on the Amboseli Reserve. While she was winding up a string that was set down to mark out a vegetation study plot, elephants started trumpeting and racing around. One elephant wound the string around her trunk and the other whirled it around all her four legs. Then off they bounded into the bush, playing and taking the string with them.

The emotional depth of elephants can be seen in their deep need to mourn and grieve for the death of a loved one. This can even be observed many years after the passing. According once again to Joyce Pool, "when an elephant walks past a place that a loved one died, he/she will stop dead still; a silent and empty pause that can last several minutes…. I wonder if, like us, they relive experiences shared with the loved one when they visit their place of death or resting spot. This is not implausible given their need to touch the bones of a dead fellow elephant."

It is hoped the elephant will have a future as formidable as its past, but like its predecessors even going as far back as the mammoth, ecological conditions and a growing scarcity of food and shelter forecast a grim reality. According to a recent British independent study, elephants kept in captivity in zoos and safari parks live short, stressed and very unhappy lives. An elephant sanctuary in Tennessee founded in 1995, is America’s single national refuge designed for endangered African and Asian elephants, The Elephant Sanctuary. This sanctuary provides hope for old, sick and needy elephants and a place for them to live out their lives in quiet dignity and peace. It needs our help to survive and we must not turn our backs on these highly intelligent, sensitive and complex creatures who stand alone in the universe as the proudest symbols of all that is gently, powerful, noble and good.
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A great book about elephants:

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Susan McCarthy

When Elephants Weep

An examination of the inner lives of animals, arguing that they possess an emotional sensibility not unlike that of humans. In this first-of-its-kind study, biologists, animal trainers, and behaviorists offer proof of animal emotions. Hundreds of anecdotes from the published works and field studies of such noted behaviorists as Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Cynthia Moss. Their findings prompt fresh ideas about human-animal interaction.

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