The Asian or Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus) is the only living species of the genus Elephas and is distributed in Southeast Asia from India in the west to Borneo in the east. Three subspecies are recognized — Elephas maximus maximus from Sri Lanka, the Indian elephant or E. m. indicus from mainland Asia, and E. m. sumatranus from the island of Sumatra. Asian elephants are the largest living land animals in Asia.
Since 1986, E. maximus has been listed as endangered by IUCN as the population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations, estimated to be 60–75 years. The species is pre-eminently threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. In 2003, the wild population was estimated at between 41,410 and 52,345 individuals.
Asian elephants are rather long-lived, with a maximum recorded life span of 86 years.
In general, the Asian elephant is smaller than the African elephant and has the highest body point on the head. The back is convex or level. The ears are small with dorsal borders folded laterally. It has up to 20 pairs of ribs and 34 caudal vertebrae. The feet have more nail-like structures than those of African elephants — five on each forefoot, and four on each hind foot.
As is common with large animals, the dimensions of the Asian elephant are often exaggerated, on average, the shoulder height of males rarely exceeds 2.7 m (9 ft) and that of the females, 2.4 m (8 ft). Head-body length is 5.5–6.4 m (18–21 ft) with the tail being 1–1.5 m (3–5 ft) long. Males weigh from 4.5–5.4 t (5–6 short tons) and females from 2–4 t (2.2–4.4 short tons). The largest bull elephant ever recorded was shot by the Maharajah of Susang in the Garo Hills of Assam, India in 1924, it weighed 8 tonnes (8.8 short tons) and stood 3.35 m (11 ft) tall at the shoulders and 8.06 m (26.4 ft) long from head to tail, though, there are reports of larger individuals, as tall as 3.7 m (12 ft).
The distinctive trunk is an elongation of the nose and upper lip combined; the nostrils are at its tip, which has a one finger-like process. The trunk contains as many as 60,000 muscles, which consist of longitudinal and radiating sets. The longitudinals are mostly superficial and subdivided into anterior, lateral and posterior. The deeper muscles are best seen as numerous distinct fasciculi in a cross-section of the trunk. The trunk is a multipurpose prehensile organ and highly sensitive, innervated by the maxillary division of the trigeminal nerve and by the facial nerve. The acute sense of smell uses both the trunk and Jacobson's organ. Elephants use their trunks for breathing, watering, feeding, touching, dusting, sound production and communication, washing, pinching, grasping, defense and offense.
The 'proboscis' or trunk consists wholly of muscular and membranous tissue, and is a tapering muscular structure of nearly circular cross-section extending proximally from attachment at the anterior nasal orifice, and ending distally in a tip or finger. The length may vary from 1.5 to 2 m (59 to 79 in) or longer depending on the species and age. Four basic muscle masses—the radial, the longitudinal and two oblique layers—and the size and attachments points of the tendon masses allow the shortening, extension, bending, and twisting movements accounting for the ability to hold, and manipulate loads of up to 300 kg (660 lb). Muscular and tendinous ability combined with nervous control allows extraordinary strength and agility movements of the trunk, such as sucking and spraying of water or dust and directed air flow blowing.
The trunk can hold about four litres of water. Elephants will playfully wrestle with each other using their trunks, but generally use their trunks only for gesturing when fighting.
Tusks serve to dig for water, salt, and rocks, to debark trees, as levers for maneuvering fallen trees and branches, for work, for display, for marking trees, as weapon for offense and defense, as trunk-rests, as protection for the trunk. They are known to be right or left tusked.
Female Asian elephants usually lack tusks; if tusks — in that case called "tushes" — are present, they are barely visible, and only seen when the mouth is open. 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 "filsy makhnas", and are especially common among the Sri Lankan elephant population. Furthermore, the forehead has two hemispherical bulges, unlike the flat front of the African elephant. Unlike African elephants which rarely use their forefeet for anything other than digging or scraping soil, Asian elephants are more agile at using their feet in conjunction with the trunk for manipulating objects. They can sometimes be known for their violent behavior.
A record tusk described by George P. Sanderson measured 5 ft (1.5 m) along the curve, with a girth of 16 in (41 cm) at the point of emergence from the jaw, the weight being 104 lb (47 kg). This was from an elephant killed by Sir V. Brooke and measured 8 ft (2.4 m) in length, and nearly 17 in (43 cm) in circumference, and weighed 90 lb (41 kg). The tusk's weight was, however, exceeded by the weight of a shorter tusk of about 6 ft (1.8 m) in length which weighed 100 lb (45 kg). 1⁄2
Skin color is usually gray, and may be masked by soil because of dusting and wallowing. Their wrinkled skin is movable and contains many nerve centers. It is smoother than of African elephants, and may be depigmented on the trunk, ears, or neck. The epidermis and dermis of the body average 18 mm (0.71 in) thick; skin on the dorsum is 30 mm (1.2 in) thick providing protection against bites, bumps, and adverse weather. Its folds increase surface area for heat dissipation. They can tolerate cold better than excessive heat. Skin temperature varies from 24 to 32.9 °C (75 to 91 °F). Body temperature averages 35.9 °C (96.6 °F).
Asian elephants are highly intelligent and self-aware. They have a very large and highly convoluted neocortex, a trait also shared by humans, apes and certain dolphin species. Asian elephants have the greatest volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing of all existing land animals. Elephants have a volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing that exceeds that of any primate species, and extensive studies place elephants in the category of great apes in terms of cognitive abilities for tool use and tool making. Elephants are reported to go to safer ground during natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes, although there have been no scientific records of this.
Distribution and habitat
Asian elephants inhabit grasslands, tropical evergreen forests, semi-evergreen forests, moist deciduous forests, dry deciduous forests and dry thorn forests, in addition to cultivated and secondary forests and scrublands. Over this range of habitat types elephants are seen from sea level to over 3,000 m (9,800 ft). In the Eastern Himalaya in northeast India, they regularly move up above 3,000 m (9,800 ft) in summer at a few sites.
- the Sri Lankan elephant lives in Sri Lanka;
- the Indian elephant lives in mainland Asia: India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Malay Peninsular, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and China;
- the Sumatran elephant lives in Sumatra and Borneo.
Ecology and behavior
Adult females and calves may move about together as groups, but adult males disperse from their mothers upon reaching adolescence. Bull elephants may be solitary or form temporary 'bachelor groups'.
Cow-calf unit sizes generally tend to be small, typically consisting of three adult females which are most likely related, and their offspring; however, larger groups containing as many as 15 adult females may occur. There can also be seasonal aggregations containing 100 individuals at a time, including calves and subadults. Until recently, Asian elephants, like African elephants, were thought to typically follow the leadership of older adult females, or matriarchs, but females can form extensive and very fluid social networks, with individual variation in the degree of gregariousness. Social ties generally tend to be weaker than in African elephants.
Elephants are crepuscular megaherbivores, and consume up to 150 kg (330 lb) of plant matter per day. They are generalist feeders, and both grazers and browsers, and were recorded to feed on 112 different plant species, most commonly of the order Malvales, and the legume, palm, sedge and true grass families. They browse more in the dry season with bark constituting a major part of their diet in the cool part of that season.
They drink at least once a day and are never far from a permanent source of fresh water. They need 80–200 litres of water a day and use even more for bathing. At times, they scrape the soil for clay or minerals.
Bulls will fight one another to get access to estrous females. Strong fights over access to females are extremely rare. Bulls reach sexual maturity around the age of 12–15. Between the age of 10 and 20 years, bulls undergo an annual phenomenon known as "musth". This is a period where the testosterone level is up to 100 times greater than nonmusth periods, and they become extremely aggressive. Secretions containing pheromones occur during this period, from the paired temporal glands located on the head between the lateral edge of the eye and the base of the ear.
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 three years. Once a female gives birth, she usually does not breed again until the first calf is weaned, resulting in a 4– to 5-yr birth interval. Females stay on with the herd, but mature males are chased away.
Interaction with humans
At most seasons of the year, Asian elephants are timid and much more ready to flee from a foe than to attack. However, solitary rogues are frequently an exception to this rule, and sometimes make unprovoked attacks on passers-by. Rogue elephants sometimes take up a position near a road, making it impassable to travellers. Females with calves are at all times dangerous to approach. When an Asian elephant makes a charge, it tightly curls up its trunk and attacks by trampling its victim with feet or knees, or, if a male, by pinning it to the ground with its tusks. During musth, bulls are highly dangerous, not only to human beings, but also to other animals. At the first indications, trained elephants are secured tightly to prevent any mishaps. The cocked ears and broad forehead present an immense frontage; the head is held high, with the trunk curled between the tusks, to be uncoiled in the moment of attack; the massive forelegs come down with the force and regularity of ponderous machinery; and the whole figure is rapidly foreshortened, and appears to double in size with each advancing stride. The trunk being curled and unable to emit any sound, the attack is made in silence, after the usual premonitory shriek, which adds to its impressiveness. The usual pictorial representations of the Indian elephant charging with upraised trunk are accordingly quite incorrect.
The first historical record of the domestication of Asian elephants was in Harappan times. Ultimately, the elephant went on to become a siege engine, a mount in war, a status symbol, a work animal, and an elevated platform for hunting during historical times in South Asia.
Elephants have been captured from the wild and tamed for use by humans. Their ability to work under instruction makes them particularly useful for carrying heavy objects. They have been used particularly for timber-carrying in jungle areas. Other than their work use, they have been used in war, in ceremonies, and for carriage. They have been used for their ability to travel over difficult terrain by hunters, for whom they served as mobile hunting platforms. The same purpose is met in safaris in modern times.
Harmful zoo conditions and practices shorten elephant lifespan by decades, as documented in a peer-reviewed survey of 4,500 elephants, published in the prestigious journal 'Science' (December 2008). The study found that Asian elephants in European zoos had a median lifespan of just 18.9 years compared to 41.7 years for wild elephants in an Asian logging camp.
Imitating human speech
Koshik, a 22-years old Asian Elephant can imitates 6 words of Korean speech with startling clarity - and matching both pitch and timbre patterns. In a blind test, native Korean speakers were able to understand exactly what Koshik said. As a juvenile, his only social contact for 5 years was with people and it made him to try to match his vocalizations to that of the humans he was in the care of. Koshik makes the speech by 'plac[ing] his trunk inside his mouth, modulating the shape of the vocal tract during controlled phonation.'
The major threat facing the Asian elephant today is habitat loss resulting from deforestation. Other causes include poaching for ivory, isolation of elephant populations and human-elephant conflict. In Burma, some young wild-born elephants are removed from their mothers, which are often killed in the process, for use in Thailand's tourism industry. The calves are often subjected to a 'breaking in' process, which may involve being tied up, confined, starved, beaten and tortured; as a result, two-thirds may perish. Some calves are placed alongside unrelated female elephants to suggest they are with their mothers.
Development such as border fencing along the India-Bangladesh border has become a major impediment to the free movement of elephants.
- ultimate causes, such as population growth and development projects
- proximate causes, such as illegal encroachment into elephant habitat, deforestation, and poor environmental governance
In India alone, over 400 people are killed by elephants every year, affecting nearly 500,000 families across the country. Moreover, elephants are known to destroy crops worth up to US$ 2-3 million annually.
This has major impacts on the welfare and livelihoods of local communities, as well as the future conservation of this species. In an extreme scenario in Assam, northeast India, more than 1,150 humans and 370 elephants died as a result of human-elephant conflict between 1980 and 2003.
Asian elephants are quintessential flagship species, deployed to catalyze a range of conservation goals, including:
- habitat conservation at landscape scales
- generating public awareness of conservation issues
- mobilization as a popular cultural icon both in India and the West
Carl Linnaeus first described the genus Elephas and an elephant from Ceylon under the binomial Elephas maximus in 1758. In 1798, Georges Cuvier first described the Indian elephant under the binomial Elephas indicus. In 1847, Coenraad Jacob Temminck first described the Sumatran elephant under the binomial Elephas sumatranus. Frederick Nutter Chasen classified all three as subspecies of the Asian elephant in 1940.
In 1950, Paules Edward Pieris Deraniyagala described the Borneo elephant under the trinomial Elephas maximus borneensis, taking as his type an illustration in the National Geographical Magazine, but not a living elephant in accordance with the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. E. m. borneensis lives in northern Borneo and is smaller than all the other subspecies, but with larger ears, a longer tail, and straight tusks. Results of genetic analysis indicate that its ancestors separated from the mainland population about 300,000 years ago.
The population in Vietnam and Laos was tested to determine if it is a subspecies, as well. This research is considered vital, as less than 1300 wild Asian elephants remain in Laos. In addition, two extinct subspecies are considered to have existed:
- The Chinese elephant is sometimes separated as E. m. rubridens (pink-tusked elephant); it disappeared after the 14th century BC.
- The Syrian elephant (E. m. asurus), the westernmost and the largest subspecies of the Asian elephant, became extinct around 100 BC. This population, along with the Indian elephant, was considered the best war elephant in antiquity, and was found superior to the smallish North African elephant (Loxodonta africana pharaoensis) used by the armies of Carthage.
The elephant plays an important part in the culture of the subcontinent and beyond, featuring prominently in Jataka tales and the Panchatantra. It plays a major role in Hinduism: the god Ganesha's head is that of an elephant, and the "blessings" of a temple elephant are highly valued. Elephants have been used in processions in Kerala, where the animals are adorned with festive outfits.
The elephant is depicted in several Indian manuscripts and treatises. Notable amongst these is the Matanga Lila of Rameswara Pandita and the Hastividyarnava of Sukumar Barkaith. The latter manuscript is from Assam in northeast India.
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