Elephants are large mammals of the family
Elephantidae and the order
Proboscidea. Three species are currently recognised: the African bush
Loxodonta africana), the
African forest elephant
African forest elephant (L.
cyclotis), and the
Asian elephant (
Elephas maximus). Elephants are
scattered throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast
Elephantidae is the only surviving family of the order
Proboscidea; other, now extinct, members of the order include
deinotheres, gomphotheres, mammoths, and mastodons.
All elephants have several distinctive features, the most notable of
which is a long trunk (also called a proboscis), used for many
purposes, particularly breathing, lifting water, and grasping objects.
Their incisors grow into tusks, which can serve as weapons and as
tools for moving objects and digging. Elephants' large ear flaps help
to control their body temperature. Their pillar-like legs can carry
their great weight. African elephants have larger ears and concave
backs while Asian elephants have smaller ears and convex or level
Elephants are herbivorous and can be found in different habitats
including savannahs, forests, deserts, and marshes. They prefer to
stay near water. They are considered to be keystone species due to
their impact on their environments. Other animals tend to keep their
distance from elephants while predators, such as lions, tigers,
hyenas, and any wild dogs, usually target only young elephants (or
"calves"). Elephants have a fission–fusion society in which multiple
family groups come together to socialise. Females ("cows") tend to
live in family groups, which can consist of one female with her calves
or several related females with offspring. The groups are led by an
individual known as the matriarch, often the oldest cow.
Males ("bulls") leave their family groups when they reach puberty and
may live alone or with other males. Adult bulls mostly interact with
family groups when looking for a mate and enter a state of increased
testosterone and aggression known as musth, which helps them gain
dominance and reproductive success. Calves are the centre of attention
in their family groups and rely on their mothers for as long as three
years. Elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild. They communicate
by touch, sight, smell, and sound; elephants use infrasound, and
seismic communication over long distances.
Elephant intelligence has
been compared with that of primates and cetaceans. They appear to have
self-awareness and show empathy for dying or dead individuals of their
African elephants are listed as vulnerable by the International Union
for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) while the
Asian elephant is classed
as endangered. One of the biggest threats to elephant populations is
the ivory trade, as the animals are poached for their ivory tusks.
Other threats to wild elephants include habitat destruction and
conflicts with local people. Elephants are used as working animals in
Asia. In the past, they were used in war; today, they are often
controversially put on display in zoos, or exploited for entertainment
in circuses. Elephants are highly recognisable and have been featured
in art, folklore, religion, literature, and popular culture.
2.1 Classification, species and subspecies
2.2 Evolution and extinct relatives
2.2.1 Dwarf species
3 Anatomy and morphology
3.5 Legs, locomotion, and posture
3.6 Internal and sexual organs
4 Behaviour and life history
4.1 Ecology and activities
4.2 Social organisation
4.3 Sexual behaviour
4.4 Birthing and calves
4.6 Intelligence and cognition
6 Elephants and humans
6.1 Working animal
6.3 Zoos and circuses
6.4 Disease transmission
6.6 Cultural depictions
7 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
The word "elephant" is based on the
Latin elephas (genitive
elephantis) ("elephant"), which is the Latinised form of the Greek
ἐλέφας (elephas) (genitive ἐλέφαντος
(elephantos)), probably from a non-Indo-European language, likely
Phoenician. It is attested in
Mycenaean Greek as e-re-pa (genitive
Linear B syllabic script. As in Mycenaean Greek,
Homer used the Greek word to mean ivory, but after the time of
Herodotus, it also referred to the animal. The word "elephant"
Middle English as olyfaunt (c.1300) and was borrowed from
Old French oliphant (12th century). Loxodonta, the generic name for
the African elephants, is Greek for "oblique-sided tooth".
Classification, species and subspecies
See also: List of elephant species
A cladogram of the elephants within
Afrotheria based on molecular
Elephants belong to the family Elephantidae, the sole remaining family
within the order
Proboscidea which belongs to the superorder
Afrotheria. Their closest extant relatives are the sirenians (dugongs
and manatees) and the hyraxes, with which they share the clade
Paenungulata within the superorder Afrotheria. Elephants and
sirenians are further grouped in the clade Tethytheria. Three
species of elephants are recognised; the African bush elephant
Loxodonta africana) and forest elephant (
Loxodonta cyclotis) of
sub-Saharan Africa, and the
Asian elephant (
Elephas maximus) of South
and Southeast Asia. African elephants have larger ears, a concave
back, more wrinkled skin, a sloping abdomen, and two finger-like
extensions at the tip of the trunk. Asian elephants have smaller ears,
a convex or level back, smoother skin, a horizontal abdomen that
occasionally sags in the middle and one extension at the tip of the
trunk. The looped ridges on the molars are narrower in the Asian
elephant while those of the African are more diamond-shaped. The Asian
elephant also has dorsal bumps on its head and some patches of
depigmentation on its skin. In general, African elephants are
larger than their Asian cousins.
African bush elephant
African bush elephant in Kruger National Park, South Africa
African forest elephant
African forest elephant in Ivindo National Park, Gabon
Asian elephant in Bandipur National Park, India
Carl Linnaeus first described the genus
an elephant from
Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) under the binomial
Elephas maximus in 1758. In 1798,
Georges Cuvier classified the
Indian elephant under the binomial
Elephas indicus. Dutch
Coenraad Jacob Temminck
Coenraad Jacob Temminck described the
Sumatran elephant in
1847 under the binomial
Elephas sumatranus. English zoologist
Frederick Nutter Chasen classified all three as subspecies of the
Asian elephant in 1940. Asian elephants vary geographically in
their colour and amount of depigmentation. The Sri Lankan elephant
Elephas maximus maximus) inhabits Sri Lanka, the Indian elephant
(E. m. indicus) is native to mainland Asia (on the Indian
subcontinent and Indochina), and the Sumatran elephant
(E. m. sumatranus) is found in Sumatra. One disputed
Borneo elephant, lives in northern
Borneo and is
smaller than all the other subspecies. It has larger ears, a longer
tail, and straighter tusks than the typical elephant. Sri Lankan
Paules Edward Pieris Deraniyagala described it in 1950 under
Elephas maximus borneensis, taking as his type an
illustration in National Geographic. It was subsequently subsumed
under either E. m. indicus or E. m. sumatranus.
Results of a 2003 genetic analysis indicate its ancestors separated
from the mainland population about 300,000 years ago. A 2008
study found that
Borneo elephants are not indigenous to the island but
were brought there before 1521 by the Sultan of Sulu from Java, where
elephants are now extinct.
African elephant was first named by German naturalist Johann
Friedrich Blumenbach in 1797 as
Elephas africanus. The genus
Loxodonta was named by
Frédéric Cuvier in 1825. Cuvier spelled
it Loxodonte, but in 1827 an anonymous author romanised the spelling
to Loxodonta; the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature
recognises this as the proper authority. In 1942, 18 subspecies of
African elephant were recognised by Henry Fairfield Osborn, but
further morphological data has reduced the number of classified
subspecies, and by the 1990s, only two were recognised, the savannah
or bush elephant (L. a. africana) and the forest elephant
(L. a. cyclotis), the latter having been named in 1900
by German zoologist Paul Matschie. Forest elephants have smaller
and more rounded ears and thinner and straighter tusks than bush
elephants, and are limited in range to the forested areas of western
and Central Africa. A 2000 study argued for the elevation of the
two forms into separate species (L. africana and L. cyclotis
respectively) based on differences in skull morphology. DNA
studies published in 2001 and 2007 also suggested they were distinct
species while studies in 2002 and 2005 concluded that they
were the same species. Further studies (2010, 2011, 2015) have
supported African savannah and forest elephants' status as separate
species. The two species are believed to have diverged 6
million years ago. and have been completely genetically isolated
for the past 500,000 years. In 2017,
DNA sequence analysis showed
that L. cyclotis is more closely related to the extinct Palaeoloxodon
antiquus, than it is to L. africana, possibly undermining the genus
Loxodonta as a whole. Some evidence suggests that elephants of
western Africa are a separate species, although this is
disputed. The pygmy elephants of the Congo Basin, which have
been suggested to be a separate species (
Loxodonta pumilio) are
probably forest elephants whose small size and/or early maturity are
due to environmental conditions.
Evolution and extinct relatives
Fossil skull and model of
Palaeoloxodon antiquus, possibly the closet
known relative of the modern African forest elephant
Over 185 extinct members and three major evolutionary radiations of
Proboscidea have been recorded. The earliest proboscids,
Phosphatherium of the late Paleocene,
heralded the first radiation. The
Eocene included Numidotherium,
Barytherium from Africa. These animals were
relatively small and aquatic. Later on, genera such as
Palaeomastodon arose; the latter likely inhabited forests and open
woodlands. Proboscidean diversity declined during the Oligocene.
One notable species of this epoch was
Eritreum melakeghebrekristosi of
the Horn of Africa, which may have been an ancestor to several later
species. The beginning of the
Miocene saw the second
diversification, with the appearance of the deinotheres and the
mammutids. The former were related to
Barytherium and lived in Africa
and Eurasia, while the latter may have descended from Eritreum
and spread to North America.
The second radiation was represented by the emergence of the
gomphotheres in the Miocene, which likely evolved from
Eritreum and originated in Africa, spreading to every continent
except Australia and Antarctica. Members of this group included
Gomphotherium and Platybelodon. The third radiation started in the
Miocene and led to the arrival of the elephantids, which
descended from, and slowly replaced, the gomphotheres. The African
Primelephas gomphotheroides gave rise to Loxodonta, Mammuthus, and
Loxodonta branched off earliest around the
Pliocene boundary while
Elephas diverged later during
the early Pliocene.
Loxodonta remained in Africa while
Elephas spread to Eurasia, and the former reached North America. At
the same time, the stegodontids, another proboscidean group descended
from gomphotheres, spread throughout Asia, including the Indian
subcontinent, China, southeast Asia, and Japan. Mammutids continued to
evolve into new species, such as the American mastodon.
early proboscideans, e.g.
Proboscidea phylogeny based on Shoshani 1998.
At the beginning of the Pleistocene, elephantids experienced a high
rate of speciation. The
Pleistocene also saw the arrival of
Palaeoloxodon namadicus, the largest terrestrial mammal of all
Loxodonta atlantica became the most common species in
northern and southern Africa but was replaced by
later in the Pleistocene. Only when
Elephas disappeared from Africa
Loxodonta become dominant once again, this time in the form of the
Elephas diversified into new species in Asia, such as
E. hysudricus and E. platycephus; the latter the likely
ancestor of the modern Asian elephant.
Mammuthus evolved into
several species, including the well-known woolly mammoth.
Interbreeding appears to have been common among elephantid species,
with some hybridisation which in some cases led to species with three
ancestral genetic components, such as the straight-tusked
elephants. In the Late Pleistocene, most proboscidean species
vanished during the
Quaternary glaciation which killed off 50% of
genera weighing over 5 kg (11 lb) worldwide.
Proboscideans experienced several evolutionary trends, such as an
increase in size, which led to many giant species that stood up to
5 m (16 ft) tall. As with other megaherbivores,
including the extinct sauropod dinosaurs, the large size of elephants
likely developed to allow them to survive on vegetation with low
nutritional value. Their limbs grew longer and the feet shorter
and broader. The feet were originally plantigrade and developed
into a digitigrade stance with cushion pads and the sesamoid bone
providing support. Early proboscideans developed longer mandibles
and smaller craniums while more derived ones developed shorter
mandibles, which shifted the head's centre of gravity. The skull grew
larger, especially the cranium, while the neck shortened to provide
better support for the skull. The increase in size led to the
development and elongation of the mobile trunk to provide reach. The
number of premolars, incisors and canines decreased. The cheek
teeth (molars and premolars) became larger and more specialized,
especially after elephants started to switch from C3-plants to
C4-grasses, which caused their teeth to undergo a three-fold increase
in teeth height as well as substantial multiplication of lamellae
after about five million years ago. Only in the last million years or
so did they return to a diet mainly consisting of C3 trees and
shrubs. The upper second incisors grew into tusks, which
varied in shape from straight, to curved (either upward or downward),
to spiralled, depending on the species. Some proboscideans developed
tusks from their lower incisors. Elephants retain certain features
from their aquatic ancestry, such as their middle ear anatomy and the
internal testes of the males.
There has been some debate over the relationship of
Loxodonta or Elephas. Some
DNA studies suggest
Mammuthus is more
closely related to the former while others point to the
latter. However, analysis of the complete mitochondrial genome
profile of the woolly mammoth (sequenced in 2005) supports Mammuthus
being more closely related to Elephas. Morphological
Elephas as sister taxa while
comparisons of protein albumin and collagen have concluded that all
three genera are equally related to each other. Some scientists
believe a cloned mammoth embryo could one day be implanted in an Asian
Main article: Dwarf elephant
Skeleton of a Cretan dwarf elephant
Several species of proboscideans lived on islands and experienced
insular dwarfism. This occurred primarily during the
some elephant populations became isolated by fluctuating sea levels,
although dwarf elephants did exist earlier in the Pliocene. These
elephants likely grew smaller on islands due to a lack of large or
viable predator populations and limited resources. By contrast, small
mammals such as rodents develop gigantism in these conditions. Dwarf
proboscideans are known to have lived in Indonesia, the Channel
Islands of California, and several islands of the Mediterranean.
Elephas celebensis of
Sulawesi is believed to have descended from
Elephas falconeri of
Sicily was only
1 m (3 ft) and had probably evolved from the straight-tusked
elephant. Other descendants of the straight-tusked elephant existed in
Cyprus. Dwarf elephants of uncertain descent lived in Crete, Cyclades,
Dodecanese while dwarf mammoths are known to have lived in
Columbian mammoth colonised the Channel Islands and
evolved into the pygmy mammoth. This species reached a height of
1.2–1.8 m (4–6 ft) and weighed 200–2,000 kg
(440–4,410 lb). A population of small woolly mammoths survived
on Wrangel Island, now 140 km (87 mi) north of the Siberian
coast, as recently as 4,000 years ago. After their discovery in
1993, they were considered dwarf mammoths. This classification has
been re-evaluated and since the Second International Mammoth
Conference in 1999, these animals are no longer considered to be true
Anatomy and morphology
African bush elephant
African bush elephant skeleton
Elephants are the largest living terrestrial animals. On average, male
African bush elephants are 3.20 m (10.5 ft) tall at the
shoulder and mass/weigh 6,000 kg (13,200 lb), whereas
females are 2.60 m (8.53 ft) tall at the shoulder and
mass/weigh 3,000 kg (6,600 lb). Asian elephants are smaller,
with males 2.75 m (9.02 ft) tall at the shoulder and
4,000 kg (8,800 lb) on average, and females 2.40 m
(7.87 ft) tall at the shoulder and 2,700 kg (6,000 lb)
on average. African forest elephants are the smallest extant species,
with the average height for the species 2.00 m (6.56 ft) at
the shoulder and average mass/weight 2,000 kg (4,400 lb).
Male African elephants are typically 23% taller than females, whereas
male Asian elephants are only around 15% taller than females. The
skeleton of the elephant is made up of 326–351 bones. The
vertebrae are connected by tight joints, which limit the backbone's
flexibility. African elephants have 21 pairs of ribs, while Asian
elephants have 19 or 20 pairs.
An elephant's skull is resilient enough to withstand the forces
generated by the leverage of the tusks and head-to-head collisions.
The back of the skull is flattened and spread out, creating arches
that protect the brain in every direction. The skull contains air
cavities (sinuses) that reduce the weight of the skull while
maintaining overall strength. These cavities give the inside of the
skull a honeycomb-like appearance. The cranium is particularly large
and provides enough room for the attachment of muscles to support the
entire head. The lower jaw is solid and heavy. Because of the size
of the head, the neck is relatively short to provide better
support. Lacking a lacrimal apparatus, the eye relies on the
harderian gland to keep it moist. A durable nictitating membrane
protects the eye globe. The animal's field of vision is compromised by
the location and limited mobility of the eyes. Elephants are
considered dichromats and they can see well in dim light but not
in bright light. The core body temperature averages 35.9 °C
(96.6 °F), similar to that of a human. Like all mammals, an
elephant can raise or lower its temperature a few degrees from the
average in response to extreme environmental conditions.
African bush elephant
African bush elephant with ears spread in a threat or attentive
position; note the visible blood vessels
Elephant ears have thick bases with thin tips. The ear flaps, or
pinnae, contain numerous blood vessels called capillaries. Warm blood
flows into the capillaries, helping to release excess body heat into
the environment. This occurs when the pinnae are still, and the animal
can enhance the effect by flapping them. Larger ear surfaces contain
more capillaries, and more heat can be released. Of all the elephants,
African bush elephants live in the hottest climates, and have the
largest ear flaps. Elephants are capable of hearing at low
frequencies and are most sensitive at 1 kHz.
The trunk, or proboscis, is a fusion of the nose and upper lip,
although in early fetal life, the upper lip and trunk are
separated. The trunk is elongated and specialised to become the
elephant's most important and versatile appendage. It contains up to
150,000 separate muscle fascicles, with no bone and little fat. These
paired muscles consist of two major types: superficial (surface) and
internal. The former are divided into dorsals, ventrals, and laterals
while the latter are divided into transverse and radiating muscles.
The muscles of the trunk connect to a bony opening in the skull. The
nasal septum is composed of tiny muscle units that stretch
horizontally between the nostrils.
Cartilage divides the nostrils at
the base. As a muscular hydrostat, the trunk moves by precisely
coordinated muscle contractions. The muscles work both with and
against each other. A unique proboscis nerve – formed by the
maxillary and facial nerves – runs along both sides of the
African bush elephant
African bush elephant with its trunk raised, a behaviour often adopted
Asian elephant drinking water with trunk
Elephant trunks have multiple functions, including breathing,
olfaction, touching, grasping, and sound production. The animal's
sense of smell may be four times as sensitive as that of a
bloodhound. The trunk's ability to make powerful twisting and
coiling movements allows it to collect food, wrestle with other
elephants, and lift up to 350 kg (770 lb). It can be
used for delicate tasks, such as wiping an eye and checking an
orifice, and is capable of cracking a peanut shell without
breaking the seed. With its trunk, an elephant can reach items at
heights of up to 7 m (23 ft) and dig for water under mud or
sand. Individuals may show lateral preference when grasping with
their trunks: some prefer to twist them to the left, others to the
right. Elephants can suck up water both to drink and to spray on
their bodies. An adult
Asian elephant is capable of holding
8.5 L (2.2 US gal) of water in its trunk. They will
also spray dust or grass on themselves. When underwater, the
elephant uses its trunk as a snorkel.
African elephant has two finger-like extensions at the tip of the
trunk that allow it to grasp and bring food to its mouth. The Asian
elephant has only one, and relies more on wrapping around a food item
and squeezing it into its mouth. Asian elephants have more muscle
coordination and can perform more complex tasks. Losing the trunk
would be detrimental to an elephant's survival, although in rare
cases, individuals have survived with shortened ones. One elephant has
been observed to graze by kneeling on its front legs, raising on its
hind legs and taking in grass with its lips. Floppy trunk syndrome
is a condition of trunk paralysis in African bush elephants caused by
the degradation of the peripheral nerves and muscles beginning at the
Closeup of the cheek teeth of a dead juvenile bush elephant
Elephants usually have 26 teeth: the incisors, known as the tusks, 12
deciduous premolars, and 12 molars. Unlike most mammals, which grow
baby teeth and then replace them with a single permanent set of adult
teeth, elephants are polyphyodonts that have cycles of tooth rotation
throughout their lives. The chewing teeth are replaced six times in a
typical elephant's lifetime. Teeth are not replaced by new ones
emerging from the jaws vertically as in most mammals. Instead, new
teeth grow in at the back of the mouth and move forward to push out
the old ones. The first chewing tooth on each side of the jaw falls
out when the elephant is two to three years old. The second set of
chewing teeth falls out at four to six years old. The third set falls
out at 9–15 years of age, and set four lasts until 18–28 years of
age. The fifth set of teeth falls out at the early 40s. The sixth (and
usually final) set must last the elephant the rest of its life.
Elephant teeth have loop-shaped dental ridges, which are thicker and
more diamond-shaped in African elephants.
Asian elephant eating tree bark, using its tusks to peel it off.
The tusks of an elephant are modified second incisors in the upper
jaw. They replace deciduous milk teeth at 6–12 months of age and
grow continuously at about 17 cm (7 in) a year. A newly
developed tusk has a smooth enamel cap that eventually wears off. The
dentine is known as ivory and its cross-section consists of
crisscrossing line patterns, known as "engine turning", which create
diamond-shaped areas. As a piece of living tissue, a tusk is
relatively soft; it is as hard as the mineral calcite. Much of the
tusk can be seen outside; the rest is in a socket in the skull. At
least one-third of the tusk contains the pulp and some have nerves
stretching to the tip. Thus it would be difficult to remove it without
harming the animal. When removed, ivory begins to dry up and crack if
not kept cool and moist. Tusks serve multiple purposes. They are used
for digging for water, salt, and roots; debarking or marking trees;
and for moving trees and branches when clearing a path. When fighting,
they are used to attack and defend, and to protect the trunk.
Like humans, who are typically right- or left-handed, elephants are
usually right- or left-tusked. The dominant tusk, called the master
tusk, is generally more worn down, as it is shorter with a rounder
tip. For the African elephants, tusks are present in both males and
females, and are around the same length in both sexes, reaching up to
3 m (10 ft), but those of males tend to be thicker.
In earlier times, elephant tusks weighing over 200 pounds (more than
90 kg) were not uncommon, though it is rare today to see any over
100 pounds (45 kg).
In the Asian species, only the males have large tusks. Female Asians
have very small tusks, or none at all. Tuskless males exist and
are particularly common among Sri Lankan elephants. Asian males
can have tusks as long as Africans', but they are usually slimmer and
lighter; the largest recorded was 3.02 m (10 ft) long and
weighed 39 kg (86 lb). Hunting for elephant ivory in
Africa and Asia has led to natural selection for shorter
tusks and tusklessness.
Asian elephant after wallowing; the mud may act as a sunscreen
An elephant's skin is generally very tough, at 2.5 cm (1 in)
thick on the back and parts of the head. The skin around the mouth,
anus, and inside of the ear is considerably thinner. Elephants
typically have grey skin, but African elephants look brown or reddish
after wallowing in coloured mud. Asian elephants have some patches of
depigmentation, particularly on the forehead and ears and the areas
around them. Calves have brownish or reddish hair, especially on the
head and back. As elephants mature, their hair darkens and becomes
sparser, but dense concentrations of hair and bristles remain on the
end of the tail as well as the chin, genitals and the areas around the
eyes and ear openings. Normally the skin of an
Asian elephant is
covered with more hair than its African counterpart.
African forest elephant
African forest elephant covering its skin with mud
An elephant uses mud as a sunscreen, protecting its skin from
ultraviolet light. Although tough, an elephant's skin is very
sensitive. Without regular mud baths to protect it from burning,
insect bites and moisture loss, an elephant's skin suffers serious
damage. After bathing, the elephant will usually use its trunk to blow
dust onto its body and this dries into a protective crust. Elephants
have difficulty releasing heat through the skin because of their low
surface-area-to-volume ratio, which is many times smaller than that of
a human. They have even been observed lifting up their legs,
presumably in an effort to expose their soles to the air.
Legs, locomotion, and posture
Asian elephant walking
To support the animal's weight, an elephant's limbs are positioned
more vertically under the body than in most other mammals. The long
bones of the limbs have cancellous bone in place of medullary
cavities. This strengthens the bones while still allowing
haematopoiesis. Both the front and hind limbs can support an
elephant's weight, although 60% is borne by the front. Since the
limb bones are placed on top of each other and under the body, an
elephant can stand still for long periods of time without using much
energy. Elephants are incapable of rotating their front legs, as the
ulna and radius are fixed in pronation; the "palm" of the manus faces
backward. The pronator quadratus and the pronator teres are either
reduced or absent. The circular feet of an elephant have soft
tissues or "cushion pads" beneath the manus or pes, which distribute
the weight of the animal. They appear to have a sesamoid, an extra
"toe" similar in placement to a giant panda's extra "thumb", that also
helps in weight distribution. As many as five toenails can be
found on both the front and hind feet.
Elephants can move both forwards and backwards, but cannot trot, jump,
or gallop. They use only two gaits when moving on land: the walk and a
faster gait similar to running. In walking, the legs act as
pendulums, with the hips and shoulders rising and falling while the
foot is planted on the ground. With no "aerial phase", the fast gait
does not meet all the criteria of running, although the elephant uses
its legs much like other running animals, with the hips and shoulders
falling and then rising while the feet are on the ground.
Fast-moving elephants appear to 'run' with their front legs, but
'walk' with their hind legs and can reach a top speed of 25 km/h
(16 mph). At this speed, most other quadrupeds are well into
a gallop, even accounting for leg length. Spring-like kinetics could
explain the difference between the motion of elephants and other
animals. During locomotion, the cushion pads expand and contract,
and reduce both the pain and noise that would come from a very heavy
animal moving. Elephants are capable swimmers. They have been
recorded swimming for up to six hours without touching the bottom, and
have travelled as far as 48 km (30 mi) at a stretch and at
speeds of up to 2.1 km/h (1 mph).
Internal and sexual organs
African elephant heart in a jar
The brain of an elephant weighs 4.5–5.5 kg (10–12 lb)
compared to 1.6 kg (4 lb) for a human brain. While the
elephant brain is larger overall, it is proportionally smaller. At
birth, an elephant's brain already weighs 30–40% of its adult
weight. The cerebrum and cerebellum are well developed, and the
temporal lobes are so large that they bulge out laterally. The
throat of an elephant appears to contain a pouch where it can store
water for later use.
The heart of an elephant weighs 12–21 kg (26–46 lb). It
has a double-pointed apex, an unusual trait among mammals. In
addition, the ventricles separate near the top of the heart, a trait
they share with sirenians. When standing, the elephant's heart
beats approximately 30 times per minute. Unlike many other animals,
the heart rate speeds up by 8 to 10 beats per minute when the elephant
is lying down. The blood vessels in most of the body are wide and
thick and can withstand high blood pressures. The lungs are
attached to the diaphragm, and breathing relies mainly on the
diaphragm rather than the expansion of the ribcage. Connective
tissue exists in place of the pleural cavity. This may allow the
animal to deal with the pressure differences when its body is
underwater and its trunk is breaking the surface for air, although
this explanation has been questioned. Another possible function
for this adaptation is that it helps the animal suck up water through
the trunk. Elephants inhale mostly through the trunk, although
some air goes through the mouth. They have a hindgut fermentation
system, and their large and small intestines together reach 35 m
(115 ft) in length. The majority of an elephant's food intake
goes undigested despite the process lasting up to a day.
A male elephant's testes are located internally near the kidneys.
The elephant's penis can reach a length of 100 cm (39 in)
and a diameter of 16 cm (6 in) at the base. It is S-shaped
when fully erect and has a Y-shaped orifice. The female has a
well-developed clitoris at up to 40 cm (16 in). The vulva is
located between the hind legs instead of near the tail as in most
mammals. Determining pregnancy status can be difficult due to the
animal's large abdominal cavity. The female's mammary glands occupy
the space between the front legs, which puts the suckling calf within
reach of the female's trunk. Elephants have a unique organ, the
temporal gland, located in both sides of the head. This organ is
associated with sexual behaviour, and males secrete a fluid from it
when in musth. Females have also been observed with secretions
from the temporal glands.
Behaviour and life history
Ecology and activities
Asian elephant feeding on grass
African elephant using its prehensile trunk for foraging
Elephant scratching on a tree to get rid of parasites
African bush elephant
African bush elephant can be found in habitats as diverse as dry
savannahs, deserts, marshes, and lake shores, and in elevations from
sea level to mountain areas above the snow line. Forest elephants
mainly live in equatorial forests but will enter gallery forests and
ecotones between forests and savannahs. Asian elephants prefer
areas with a mix of grasses, low woody plants, and trees, primarily
inhabiting dry thorn-scrub forests in southern India and
Sri Lanka and
evergreen forests in Malaya. Elephants are herbivorous and will
eat leaves, twigs, fruit, bark, grass and roots. They are born
with sterile intestines and require bacteria obtained from their
mother's feces to digest vegetation. African elephants are mostly
browsers while Asian elephants are mainly grazers. They can consume as
much as 150 kg (330 lb) of food and 40 L
(11 US gal) of water in a day. Elephants tend to stay near
water sources. Major feeding bouts take place in the morning,
afternoon and night. At midday, elephants rest under trees and may
doze off while standing. Sleeping occurs at night while the animal is
lying down. Elephants average 3–4 hours of sleep per
day. Both males and family groups typically move 10–20 km
(6–12 mi) a day, but distances as far as 90–180 km
(56–112 mi) have been recorded in the Etosha region of
Namibia. Elephants go on seasonal migrations in search of food,
water, minerals, and mates. At Chobe National Park, Botswana,
herds travel 325 km (202 mi) to visit the river when the
local waterholes dry up.
Because of their large size, elephants have a huge impact on their
environments and are considered keystone species. Their habit of
uprooting trees and undergrowth can transform savannah into
grasslands; when they dig for water during drought, they create
waterholes that can be used by other animals. They can enlarge
waterholes when they bathe and wallow in them. At Mount Elgon,
elephants excavate caves that are used by ungulates, hyraxes, bats,
birds and insects. Elephants are important seed dispersers;
African forest elephants ingest and defecate seeds, with either no
effect or a positive effect on germination. The seeds are typically
dispersed in large amounts over great distances. In Asian
forests, large seeds require giant herbivores like elephants and
rhinoceros for transport and dispersal. This ecological niche cannot
be filled by the next largest herbivore, the tapir. Because most
of the food elephants eat goes undigested, their dung can provide food
for other animals, such as dung beetles and monkeys. Elephants
can have a negative impact on ecosystems. At Murchison Falls National
Park in Uganda, the overabundance of elephants has threatened several
species of small birds that depend on woodlands. Their weight can
compact the soil, which causes the rain to run off, leading to
Forest elephant in habitat. It is considered to be an important seed
Elephants typically coexist peacefully with other herbivores, which
will usually stay out of their way. Some aggressive interactions
between elephants and rhinoceros have been recorded. At Aberdare
National Park, Kenya, a rhino attacked an elephant calf and was killed
by the other elephants in the group. At Hluhluwe–Umfolozi Game
Reserve, South Africa, introduced young orphan elephants went on a
killing spree that claimed the lives of 36 rhinos during the 1990s,
but ended with the introduction of older males. The size of adult
elephants makes them nearly invulnerable to predators, though
there are rare reports of adult elephants falling prey to tigers.
Calves may be preyed on by lions, spotted hyenas, and wild dogs in
Africa and tigers in Asia. The lions of Savuti, Botswana,
have adapted to hunting juvenile elephants during the dry season, and
a pride of 30 lions has been recorded killing juvenile individuals
between the ages of four and eleven years. Elephants appear to
distinguish between the growls of larger predators like tigers and
smaller predators like leopards (which have not been recorded killing
calves); they react to leopards less fearfully and more
aggressively. Elephants tend to have high numbers of parasites,
particularly nematodes, compared to other herbivores. This is due to
lower predation pressures that would otherwise kill off many of the
individuals with significant parasite loads.
A family of African elephants: note the protected position of the
calves in the middle of the group
A family of elephants bathing, a behaviour which reinforces social
Female elephants spend their entire lives in tight-knit matrilineal
family groups, some of which are made up of more than ten members,
including three pairs of mothers with offspring, and are led by the
matriarch which is often the eldest female. She remains leader of
the group until death or if she no longer has the energy for the
role; a study on zoo elephants showed that when the matriarch
died, the levels of faecal corticosterone ('stress hormone')
dramatically increased in the surviving elephants. When her
tenure is over, the matriarch's eldest daughter takes her place; this
occurs even if her sister is present. The older matriarchs tend
to be more effective decision-makers.
The social circle of the female elephant does not necessarily end with
the small family unit. In the case of elephants in Amboseli National
Park, Kenya, a female's life involves interaction with other families,
clans, and subpopulations. Families may associate and bond with each
other, forming what are known as bond groups. These are typically made
of two family groups, which may be closely related due to
previously being part of the same family group which split after
becoming too large for the available resources. During the dry
season, elephant families may cluster together and form another level
of social organisation known as the clan. Groups within these clans do
not form strong bonds, but they defend their dry-season ranges against
other clans. There are typically nine groups in a clan. The Amboseli
elephant population is further divided into the "central" and
Some elephant populations in India and
Sri Lanka have similar basic
social organisations. There appear to be cohesive family units and
loose aggregations. They have been observed to have "nursing units"
and "juvenile-care units". In southern India, elephant populations may
contain family groups, bond groups and possibly clans. Family groups
tend to be small, consisting of one or two adult females and their
offspring. A group containing more than two adult females plus
offspring is known as a "joint family". Malay elephant populations
have even smaller family units, and do not have any social
organisation higher than a family or bond group. Groups of African
forest elephants typically consist of one adult female with one to
three offspring. These groups appear to interact with each other,
especially at forest clearings.
Lone bull: Adult male elephants spend much of their time alone or in
The social life of the adult male is very different. As he matures, a
male spends more time at the edge of his group and associates with
outside males or even other families. At Amboseli, young males spend
over 80% of their time away from their families when they are 14–15.
When males permanently leave, they either live alone or with other
males. The former is typical of bulls in dense forests. Asian males
are usually solitary, but occasionally form groups of two or more
individuals; the largest consisted of seven bulls. Larger bull groups
consisting of over 10 members occur only among African bush elephants,
the largest of which numbered up to 144 individuals. These
elephants can be quite sociable when not competing for dominance or
mates, and will form long-term relationships. A dominance
hierarchy exists among males, whether they range socially or
solitarily. Dominance depends on the age, size and sexual
condition, and when in groups, males follow the lead of the
dominant bull. Young bulls may seek out the company and leadership of
older, more experienced males, whose presence appears to control
their aggression and prevent them from exhibiting "deviant"
behaviour. Adult males and females come together for
reproduction. Bulls associate with family groups if an oestrous cow is
Male elephants sparring
Main article: Musth
Bull in musth
Adult males enter a state of increased testosterone known as musth. In
a population in southern India, males first enter musth at the age of
15, but it is not very intense until they are older than 25. At
Amboseli, bulls under 24 do not go into musth, while half of those
aged 25–35 and all those over 35 do. Young bulls appear to enter
musth during the dry season (January–May), while older bulls go
through it during the wet season (June–December). The main
characteristic of a bull's musth is a fluid secreted from the temporal
gland that runs down the side of his face. He may urinate with his
penis still in his sheath, which causes the urine to spray on his hind
legs. Behaviours associated with musth include walking with the head
held high and swinging, picking at the ground with the tusks, marking,
rumbling and waving only one ear at a time. This can last from a day
to four months.
Males become extremely aggressive during musth. Size is the
determining factor in agonistic encounters when the individuals have
the same condition. In contests between musth and non-musth
individuals, musth bulls win the majority of the time, even when the
non-musth bull is larger. A male may stop showing signs of musth when
he encounters a musth male of higher rank. Those of equal rank tend to
avoid each other. Agonistic encounters typically consist of threat
displays, chases, and minor sparring with the tusks. Serious fights
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Elephants mating.
Bull mating with a member of a female group
Elephants are polygynous breeders, and copulations are most
frequent during the peak of the wet season. A cow in oestrus
releases chemical signals (pheromones) in her urine and vaginal
secretions to signal her readiness to mate. A bull will follow a
potential mate and assess her condition with the flehmen response,
which requires the male to collect a chemical sample with his trunk
and bring it to the vomeronasal organ. The oestrous cycle of
a cow lasts 14–16 weeks with a 4–6-week follicular phase and an 8-
to 10-week luteal phase. While most mammals have one surge of
luteinizing hormone during the follicular phase, elephants have two.
The first (or anovulatory) surge, could signal to males that the
female is in oestrus by changing her scent, but ovulation does not
occur until the second (or ovulatory) surge. Fertility rates in
cows decline around 45–50 years of age.
Bulls engage in a behaviour known as mate-guarding, where they follow
oestrous females and defend them from other males. Most
mate-guarding is done by musth males, and females actively seek to be
guarded by them, particularly older ones. Thus these bulls have
more reproductive success.
Musth appears to signal to females the
condition of the male, as weak or injured males do not have normal
musths. For young females, the approach of an older bull can be
intimidating, so her relatives stay nearby to provide support and
reassurance. During copulation, the male lays his trunk over the
female's back. The penis is very mobile, being able to move
independently of the pelvis. Prior to mounting, it curves forward
and upward. Copulation lasts about 45 seconds and does not involve
pelvic thrusting or ejaculatory pause.
Elephant sperm must swim
close to 2 m (6.6 ft) to reach the egg. By comparison, human
sperm has to swim around only 76.2 mm (3.00 in).
Homosexual behaviour is frequent in both sexes. As in heterosexual
interactions, this involves mounting. Male elephants sometimes
stimulate each other by playfighting and "championships" may form
between old bulls and younger males. Female same-sex behaviours have
been documented only in captivity where they are known to masturbate
one another with their trunks.
Birthing and calves
African forest elephant
African forest elephant mother bathing with her calf
Gestation in elephants typically lasts around two years with
interbirth intervals usually lasting four to five years. Births tend
to take place during the wet season. Calves are born 85 cm
(33 in) tall and weigh around 120 kg (260 lb).
Typically, only a single young is born, but twins sometimes
occur. The relatively long pregnancy is maintained by five
corpus luteums (as opposed to one in most mammals) and gives the
foetus more time to develop, particularly the brain and trunk. As
such, newborn elephants are precocial and quickly stand and walk to
follow their mother and family herd. A new calf is usually the
centre of attention for herd members. Adults and most of the other
young will gather around the newborn, touching and caressing it with
their trunks. For the first few days, the mother is intolerant of
other herd members near her young.
Alloparenting – where a calf is
cared for by someone other than its mother – takes place in some
family groups. Allomothers are typically two to twelve years old.
When a predator is near, the family group gathers together with the
calves in the centre.
For the first few days, the newborn is unsteady on its feet, and needs
the support of its mother. It relies on touch, smell, and hearing, as
its eyesight is poor. It has little precise control over its trunk,
which wiggles around and may cause it to trip. By its second week of
life, the calf can walk more firmly and has more control over its
trunk. After its first month, a calf can pick up, hold, and put
objects in its mouth, but cannot suck water through the trunk and must
drink directly through the mouth. It is still dependent on its mother
and keeps close to her.
For its first three months, a calf relies entirely on milk from its
mother for nutrition, after which it begins to forage for vegetation
and can use its trunk to collect water. At the same time, improvements
in lip and leg coordination occur. Calves continue to suckle at the
same rate as before until their sixth month, after which they become
more independent when feeding. By nine months, mouth, trunk and foot
coordination is perfected. After a year, a calf's abilities to groom,
drink, and feed itself are fully developed. It still needs its mother
for nutrition and protection from predators for at least another year.
Suckling bouts tend to last 2–4 min/hr for a calf younger than a
year and it continues to suckle until it reaches three years of age or
older. Suckling after two years may serve to maintain growth rate,
body condition and reproductive ability.
Play behaviour in calves differs between the sexes; females run or
chase each other while males play-fight. The former are sexually
mature by the age of nine years while the latter become mature
around 14–15 years. Adulthood starts at about 18 years of age
in both sexes. Elephants have long lifespans, reaching
60–70 years of age. Lin Wang, a captive male Asian elephant,
lived for 86 years.
Asian elephants greeting each other by inter-twining their trunks
Touching is an important form of communication among elephants.
Individuals greet each other by stroking or wrapping their trunks; the
latter also occurs during mild competition. Older elephants use
trunk-slaps, kicks, and shoves to discipline younger ones. Individuals
of any age and sex will touch each other's mouths, temporal glands,
and genitals, particularly during meetings or when excited. This
allows individuals to pick up chemical cues. Touching is especially
important for mother–calf communication. When moving, elephant
mothers will touch their calves with their trunks or feet when
side-by-side or with their tails if the calf is behind them. If a calf
wants to rest, it will press against its mother's front legs and when
it wants to suckle, it will touch her breast or leg.
Visual displays mostly occur in agonistic situations. Elephants will
try to appear more threatening by raising their heads and spreading
their ears. They may add to the display by shaking their heads and
snapping their ears, as well as throwing dust and vegetation. They are
usually bluffing when performing these actions. Excited elephants may
raise their trunks. Submissive ones will lower their heads and trunks,
as well as flatten their ears against their necks, while those that
accept a challenge will position their ears in a V shape.
Elephants produce several sounds, usually through the larynx, though
some may be modified by the trunk. Perhaps the most well known
call is the trumpet which is made by blowing through the trunk.
Trumpeting is made during excitement, distress or
aggression. Fighting elephants may roar or squeal, and
wounded ones may bellow. Rumbles are produced during mild
arousal and some appear to be infrasonic. Infrasonic calls
are important, particularly for long-distance communication, in
both Asian and African elephants. For Asian elephants, these calls
have a frequency of 14–24 Hz, with sound pressure levels of
85–90 dB and last 10–15 seconds. For African elephants,
calls range from 15–35 Hz with sound pressure levels as high as
117 dB, allowing communication for many kilometres, with a
possible maximum range of around 10 km (6 mi).
Rumble visualised with acoustic camera
At Amboseli, several different infrasonic calls have been identified.
A greeting rumble is emitted by members of a family group after having
been separated for several hours. Contact calls are soft, unmodulated
sounds made by individuals that have been separated from their group
and may be responded to with a "contact answer" call that starts out
loud, but becomes softer. A "let's go" soft rumble is emitted by the
matriarch to signal to the other herd members that it is time to move
to another spot. Bulls in musth emit a distinctive, low-frequency
pulsated rumble nicknamed the "motorcycle".
Musth rumbles may be
answered by the "female chorus", a low-frequency, modulated chorus
produced by several cows. A loud postcopulatory call may be made by an
oestrous cow after mating. When a cow has mated, her family may
produce calls of excitement known as the "mating pandemonium".
Elephants are known to communicate with seismics, vibrations produced
by impacts on the earth's surface or acoustical waves that travel
through it. They appear to rely on their leg and shoulder bones to
transmit the signals to the middle ear. When detecting seismic
signals, the animals lean forward and put more weight on their larger
front feet; this is known as the "freezing behaviour". Elephants
possess several adaptations suited for seismic communication. The
cushion pads of the feet contain cartilaginous nodes and have
similarities to the acoustic fat found in marine mammals like toothed
whales and sirenians. A unique sphincter-like muscle around the ear
canal constricts the passageway, thereby dampening acoustic signals
and allowing the animal to hear more seismic signals. Elephants
appear to use seismics for a number of purposes. An individual running
or mock charging can create seismic signals that can be heard at great
distances. When detecting the seismics of an alarm call
signalling danger from predators, elephants enter a defensive posture
and family groups will pack together. Seismic waveforms produced by
locomotion appear to travel distances of up to 32 km (20 mi)
while those from vocalisations travel 16 km (10 mi).
Intelligence and cognition
Elephant rolling a block to allow it to reach food
Elephants exhibit mirror self-recognition, an indication of
self-awareness and cognition that has also been demonstrated in some
apes and dolphins. One study of a captive female Asian elephant
suggested the animal was capable of learning and distinguishing
between several visual and some acoustic discrimination pairs. This
individual was even able to score a high accuracy rating when
re-tested with the same visual pairs a year later. Elephants are
among the species known to use tools. An
Asian elephant has been
observed modifying branches and using them as flyswatters. Tool
modification by these animals is not as advanced as that of
chimpanzees. Elephants are popularly thought of as having an excellent
memory. This could have a factual basis; they possibly have cognitive
maps to allow them to remember large-scale spaces over long periods of
time. Individuals appear to be able to keep track of the current
location of their family members.
Scientists debate the extent to which elephants feel emotion. They
appear to show interest in the bones of their own kind, regardless of
whether they are related. As with chimps and dolphins, a dying or
dead elephant may elicit attention and aid from others, including
those from other groups. This has been interpreted as expressing
"concern"; however, others would dispute such an interpretation
as being anthropomorphic; the Oxford Companion to Animal
Behaviour (1987) advised that "one is well advised to study the
behaviour rather than attempting to get at any underlying
Distribution of elephants
African elephants were listed as vulnerable by the International Union
for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2008, with no independent
assessment of the conservation status of the two forms. In 1979,
Africa had an estimated minimum population of 1.3 million
elephants, with a possible upper limit of 3.0 million. By 1989,
the population was estimated to be 609,000; with 277,000 in Central
Africa, 110,000 in eastern Africa, 204,000 in southern Africa, and
19,000 in western Africa. About 214,000 elephants were estimated to
live in the rainforests, fewer than had previously been thought. From
1977 to 1989, elephant populations declined by 74% in East Africa.
After 1987, losses in elephant numbers accelerated, and savannah
Somalia experienced a decline of 80%.
African forest elephants had a total loss of 43%. Population trends in
southern Africa were mixed, with anecdotal reports of losses in
Angola while populations grew in Botswana and
Zimbabwe and were stable in South Africa. Conversely, studies in
2005 and 2007 found populations in eastern and southern Africa were
increasing by an average annual rate of 4.0%. Due to the vast
areas involved, assessing the total
African elephant population
remains difficult and involves an element of guesswork. The IUCN
estimates a total of around 440,000 individuals for 2012.
African elephants receive at least some legal protection in every
country where they are found, but 70% of their range exists outside
protected areas. Successful conservation efforts in certain areas have
led to high population densities. As of 2008, local numbers were
controlled by contraception or translocation. Large-scale cullings
ceased in 1988, when Zimbabwe abandoned the practice. In 1989, the
African elephant was listed under Appendix I by the Convention on
International Trade in
Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
(CITES), making trade illegal. Appendix II status (which allows
restricted trade) was given to elephants in Botswana, Namibia, and
Zimbabwe in 1997 and
South Africa in 2000. In some countries, sport
hunting of the animals is legal; Botswana, Cameroon, Gabon,
Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have
CITES export quotas for elephant trophies. In June 2016, the
First Lady of Kenya, Margaret Kenyatta, helped launch the East Africa
Elephant Education Campaign Walk, organised by elephant
conservationist Jim Nyamu. The event was conducted to raise awareness
of the value of elephants and rhinos, to help mitigate human-elephant
conflicts, and to promote anti-poaching activities.
In 2008, the IUCN listed the
Asian elephant as endangered due to a 50%
population decline over the past 60–75 years while
the species under Appendix I. Asian elephants once ranged from
Iraq (the subspecies
Elephas maximus asurus), to China (up
to the Yellow River) and Java. It is now extinct in these
areas, and the current range of Asian elephants is highly
fragmented. The total population of Asian elephants is estimated
to be around 40,000–50,000, although this may be a loose estimate.
It is likely that around half of the population is in India. Although
Asian elephants are declining in numbers overall, particularly in
Southeast Asia, the population in the
Western Ghats appears to be
Elephant ivory and
Men with elephant tusks at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, circa 1900
The poaching of elephants for their ivory, meat and hides has been one
of the major threats to their existence. Historically, numerous
cultures made ornaments and other works of art from elephant ivory,
and its use rivalled that of gold. The ivory trade contributed to
African elephant population decline in the late 20th century.
This prompted international bans on ivory imports, starting with the
United States in June 1989, and followed by bans in other North
American countries, western European countries, and Japan. Around
the same time, Kenya destroyed all its ivory stocks. CITES
approved an international ban on ivory that went into effect in
January 1990. Following the bans, unemployment rose in India and
China, where the ivory industry was important economically. By
contrast, Japan and Hong Kong, which were also part of the industry,
were able to adapt and were not badly affected. Zimbabwe,
Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and
Malawi wanted to continue the ivory
trade and were allowed to, since their local elephant populations were
healthy, but only if their supplies were from elephants that had been
culled or died of natural causes.
The ban allowed the elephant to recover in parts of Africa. In
January 2012, 650 elephants in Bouba Njida National Park, Cameroon,
were killed by Chadian raiders. This has been called "one of the
worst concentrated killings" since the ivory ban. Asian elephants
are potentially less vulnerable to the ivory trade, as females usually
lack tusks. Still, members of the species have been killed for their
ivory in some areas, such as
Periyar National Park
Periyar National Park in India.
China was the biggest market for poached ivory but announced they
would phase out the legal domestic manufacture and sale of ivory
products in May 2015, and in September 2015, China and the United
States said "they would enact a nearly complete ban on the import and
export of ivory" due to causes of extinction.
Other threats to elephants include habitat destruction and
Asian elephant lives in areas with some of the
highest human populations. Because they need larger amounts of land
than other sympatric terrestrial mammals, they are the first to be
affected by human encroachment. In extreme cases, elephants may be
confined to small islands of forest among human-dominated landscapes.
Elephants cannot coexist with humans in agricultural areas due to
their size and food requirements. Elephants commonly trample and
consume crops, which contributes to conflicts with humans, and both
elephants and humans have died by the hundreds as a result. Mitigating
these conflicts is important for conservation. One proposed
solution is the provision of ‘urban corridors’ which allow the
animals access to key areas.
Elephants and humans
See also: Captive elephants
Working elephant as transport
Elephants have been working animals since at least the Indus Valley
Civilization and continue to be used in modern times. There were
13,000–16,500 working elephants employed in Asia in 2000. These
animals are typically captured from the wild when they are 10–20
years old when they can be trained quickly and easily, and will have a
longer working life. They were traditionally captured with traps
and lassos, but since 1950, tranquillisers have been used.
Individuals of the Asian species have been often trained as working
animals. Asian elephants perform tasks such as hauling loads into
remote areas, moving logs to rivers and roads, transporting tourists
around national parks, pulling wagons, and leading religious
processions. In northern Thailand, the animals are used to digest
coffee beans for Black
Ivory coffee. They are valued over
mechanised tools because they can work in relatively deep water,
require relatively little maintenance, need only vegetation and water
as fuel and can be trained to memorise specific tasks. Elephants can
be trained to respond to over 30 commands.
Musth bulls can be
difficult and dangerous to work with and are chained and semi-starved
until the condition passes. In India, many working elephants are
alleged to have been subject to abuse. They and other captive
elephants are thus protected under The Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals Act of 1960.
In both Myanmar and Thailand, deforestation and other economic factors
have resulted in sizable populations of unemployed elephants resulting
in health problems for the elephants themselves as well as economic
and safety problems for the people amongst whom they live.
The practice of working elephants has also been attempted in Africa.
The taming of African elephants in the
Belgian Congo began by decree
Leopold II of Belgium
Leopold II of Belgium during the 19th century and continues to the
present with the Api
Elephant Domestication Centre.
Main article: War elephant
See also: Execution by elephant
Battle of Zama
Battle of Zama by Henri-Paul Motte, 1890
Elephant battery during the Second Anglo-Afghan War
Historically, elephants were considered formidable instruments of war.
They were equipped with armour to protect their sides, and their tusks
were given sharp points of iron or brass if they were large enough.
War elephants were trained to grasp an enemy soldier and toss him to
the person riding on them or to pin the soldier to the ground and
One of the earliest references to war elephants is in the Indian epic
Mahabharata (written in the 4th century BC, but said to describe
events between the 11th and 8th centuries BC). They were not used as
much as horse-drawn chariots by either the Pandavas or Kauravas.
Magadha Kingdom (which began in the 6th century BC),
elephants began to achieve greater cultural importance than horses,
and later Indian kingdoms used war elephants extensively; 3,000 of
them were used in the Nandas (5th and 4th centuries BC) army while
9,000 may have been used in the Mauryan army (between the 4th and 2nd
centuries BC). The
Arthashastra (written around 300 BC) advised the
Mauryan government to reserve some forests for wild elephants for use
in the army, and to execute anyone who killed them. From South
Asia, the use of elephants in warfare spread west to Persia and
east to Southeast Asia. The Persians used them during the
Achaemenid Empire (between the 6th and 4th centuries BC) while
Southeast Asian states first used war elephants possibly as early as
the 5th century BC and continued to the 20th century.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great trained his foot soldiers to injure the animals
and cause them to panic during wars with both the Persians and
Indians. Ptolemy, who was one of Alexander's generals, used corps of
Asian elephants during his reign as the ruler of Egypt (which began in
323 BC). His son and successor Ptolemy II (who began his rule in 285
BC) obtained his supply of elephants further south in Nubia. From then
on, war elephants were employed in the Mediterranean and North Africa
throughout the classical period. The Greek king Pyrrhus used elephants
in his attempted invasion of Rome in 280 BC. While they frightened the
Roman horses, they were not decisive and Pyrrhus ultimately lost the
battle. The Carthaginian general
Hannibal took elephants across the
Alps during his war with the Romans and reached the
Po Valley in 217
BC with all of them alive, but they later succumbed to disease.
Zoos and circuses
See also: Captive elephants
Rembrandt's 1637 drawing of an elephant
African elephants at the Barcelona Zoo
Elephants were historically kept for display in the menageries of
Ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome. The Romans in particular
pitted them against humans and other animals in gladiator events. In
the modern era, elephants have traditionally been a major part of zoos
and circuses around the world. In circuses, they are trained to
perform tricks. The most famous circus elephant was probably Jumbo
(1861 – 15 September 1885), who was a major attraction in the Barnum
& Bailey Circus. These animals do not reproduce well in
captivity, due to the difficulty of handling musth bulls and limited
understanding of female oestrous cycles. Asian elephants were always
more common than their African counterparts in modern zoos and
CITES listed the
Asian elephant under Appendix I in
1975, the number of African elephants in zoos increased in the 1980s,
although the import of Asians continued. Subsequently, the US received
many of its captive African elephants from Zimbabwe, which had an
overabundance of the animals. As of 2000, around 1,200 Asian and
700 African elephants were kept in zoos and circuses. The largest
captive population is in North America, which has an estimated 370
Asian and 350 African elephants. About 380 Asians and 190 Africans are
known to exist in Europe, and Japan has around 70 Asians and 67
Circus poster, circa 1900
Captive elephants used for tours in Ayutthaya, Thailand.
Keeping elephants in zoos has met with some controversy. Proponents of
zoos argue that they offer researchers easy access to the animals and
provide money and expertise for preserving their natural habitats, as
well as safekeeping for the species. Critics claim that the animals in
zoos are under physical and mental stress. Elephants have been
recorded displaying stereotypical behaviours in the form of swaying
back and forth, trunk swaying, or route tracing. This has been
observed in 54% of individuals in UK zoos. Elephants in European
zoos appear to have shorter lifespans than their wild counterparts at
only 17 years, although other studies suggest that zoo elephants live
as long those in the wild.
The use of elephants in circuses has also been controversial; the
Humane Society of the United States
Humane Society of the United States has accused circuses of
mistreating and distressing their animals. In testimony to a US
federal court in 2009, Barnum & Bailey
Circus CEO Kenneth Feld
acknowledged that circus elephants are struck behind their ears, under
their chins and on their legs with metal-tipped prods, called bull
hooks or ankus. Feld stated that these practices are necessary to
protect circus workers and acknowledged that an elephant trainer was
reprimanded for using an electric shock device, known as a hot shot or
electric prod, on an elephant. Despite this, he denied that any of
these practices harm elephants. Some trainers have tried to train
elephants without the use of physical punishment.
Ralph Helfer is
known to have relied on gentleness and reward when training his
animals, including elephants and lions. Ringling Bros. and Barnum
and Bailey circus retired its touring elephants in May 2016.
Like many mammals, elephants can contract and transmit diseases to
humans, one of which is tuberculosis. As of 2015[update], tuberculosis
appears to be widespread among captive elephants in the US, and
because the disease can spread through the air to infect both humans
and other animals, it is a public health concern affecting circuses
and zoos. In 2012, two elephants in Tete d'Or zoo, Lyon were
diagnosed with the disease. Due to the threat of transmitting
tuberculosis to other animals or visitors to the zoo, their euthanasia
was initially ordered by city authorities but a court later overturned
this decision. At an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, a
African elephant was considered to be the source of
tuberculosis infections among eight workers.
Elephants can exhibit bouts of aggressive behaviour and engage in
destructive actions against humans. In Africa, groups of
adolescent elephants damaged homes in villages after cullings in the
1970s and 1980s. Because of the timing, these attacks have been
interpreted as vindictive. In parts of India, male elephants
regularly enter villages at night, destroying homes and killing
people. Elephants killed around 300 people between 2000 and 2004 in
Jharkhand while in Assam, 239 people were reportedly killed between
2001 and 2006. Local people have reported their belief that some
elephants were drunk during their attacks, although officials have
disputed this explanation. Purportedly drunk elephants
attacked an Indian village a second time in December 2002, killing six
people, which led to the killing of about 200 elephants by
Main article: Cultural depictions of elephants
See also: Elephants in Kerala culture, List of elephants in mythology
and religion, and List of fictional pachyderms
Parable of the elephant and the blind monks; illustrated by Hanabusa
Ukiyo-e woodcut, 1888)
In many cultures, elephants represent strength, power, wisdom,
longevity, stamina, leadership, sociability, nurturance and
loyalty. Several cultural references emphasise the
elephant's size and exotic uniqueness. For instance, a "white
elephant" is a byword for something expensive, useless, and
bizarre. The expression "elephant in the room" refers to an
obvious truth that is ignored or otherwise unaddressed. The story
of the blind men and an elephant teaches that reality may be viewed by
Stone carving Elephant. AD 7. Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu. (
Woodcut illustration for "The Elephant's Child" by Rudyard Kipling
Elephants have been represented in art since
Africa, in particular, contains many rock paintings and engravings of
the animals, especially in the
Sahara and southern Africa. In
Asia, the animals are depicted as motifs in Hindu and Buddhist shrines
and temples. Elephants were often difficult to portray by people
with no first-hand experience with them. The ancient Romans, who
kept the animals in captivity, depicted anatomically accurate
elephants on mosaics in
Tunisia and Sicily. At the beginning of the
Middle Ages when Europeans had little to no access to the animals,
elephants were portrayed more like fantasy creatures. They were often
depicted with horse- or bovine-like bodies with trumpet-like trunks
and tusks like a boar; some were even given hooves. Elephants were
commonly featured in motifs by the stonemasons of the Gothic churches.
As more elephants began to be sent to European kings as gifts during
the 15th century, depictions of them became more accurate, including
one made by Leonardo da Vinci. Despite this, some Europeans continued
to portray them in a more stylised fashion. Max Ernst's 1921
surrealist painting, The
Elephant Celebes, depicts an elephant as a
silo with a trunk-like hose protruding from it.
Elephants have been the subject of religious beliefs. The Mbuti people
of central Africa believe that the souls of their dead ancestors
resided in elephants. Similar ideas existed among other African
tribes, who believed that their chiefs would be reincarnated as
elephants. During the 10th century AD, the people of Igbo-Ukwu, near
the Niger Delta, buried their leaders with elephant tusks. The
animals' religious importance is only totemic in Africa but is
much more significant in Asia. In Sumatra, elephants have been
associated with lightning. Likewise in Hinduism, they are linked with
thunderstorms as Airavata, the father of all elephants, represents
both lightning and rainbows. One of the most important Hindu
deities, the elephant-headed Ganesha, is ranked equal with the supreme
gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma.
Ganesha is associated with
writers and merchants and it is believed that he can give people
success as well as grant them their desires. In Buddhism, Buddha
is said to have been a white elephant reincarnated as a human.
According to Buddhist mythology, Gautama Buddha's mother, Maya, dreamt
that a white elephant enter her womb. The astrologers of the king's
court interpreted this dream as the impending birth of a great
person who would either become a 'Chakravartin' (conqueror of the
world) or a great sage. In Islamic tradition, the year 570 when
Muhammad was born is known as the Year of the Elephant. Elephants
were thought to be religious themselves by the Romans, who believed
that they worshipped the sun and stars.
Elephant statue in Butterfly Park Bangladesh.
Elephants are ubiquitous in Western popular culture as emblems of the
exotic, especially since – as with the giraffe, hippopotamus and
rhinoceros – there are no similar animals familiar to Western
audiences. The use of the elephant as a symbol of the US
Republican Party began with an 1874 cartoon by Thomas Nast. As
characters, elephants are most common in children's stories, in which
they are generally cast as models of exemplary behaviour. They are
typically surrogates for humans with ideal human values. Many stories
tell of isolated young elephants returning to a close-knit community,
such as "The Elephant's Child" from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories,
Disney's Dumbo, and Kathryn and Byron Jackson's The Saggy Baggy
Elephant. Other elephant heroes given human qualities include Jean de
Brunhoff's Babar, David McKee's Elmer, and Dr. Seuss's Horton.
Beehive fences use elephants' fear of bees to minimise conflict with
Elephant Day (Thailand)
Motty, captive hybrid of an Asian and African elephant
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