Animal of the Issue: Asian Elephants

Asian elephants in Thailand. Photo credit / Randy Lertdarapong
Asian elephants in Thailand. Photo credit / Randy Lertdarapong
Asian elephants in Thailand. Photo credit / Randy Lertdarapong
Asian elephants in Thailand.
Photo credit / Randy Lertdarapong

By Janice Tieperman
Science Editor

In many cultures of the world, the Asian elephant is considered to be as much myth as it is animal.

“According to Indian mythology, the gods (deva) and the demons (asura) churned the oceans in search for the elixir of life so that they would become immortal. As they did so, nine jewels surfaced, one of which was the elephant,” the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) site states.

While the mystical qualities of this species are unknown, it is known that these creatures are a staple of wildlife in many Southeast Asian countries; however, they might not be that way for long.

According to the WWF, the population of the Asian elephant is at 40,000 to 50,000, leaving it at a critically endangered status. Poaching and black market activity is a large factor of endangerment for many species, and the Asian elephant is no exception.

While the WWF explains that the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora prohibited the hunting of elephant ivory tusks for trading purposes, the organization also notes that there is still a great amount of illegal activity still going on.

Another large factor concerning these animals is the expanding civilization that is encroaching on their habitats, leaving them less space to live and prosper.

It also does not help that the gestation period of these elephants is nearly two years, making it very difficult for elephants to maintain a healthy population on their own.

Nevertheless, one of the keys to saving these animals will be to understand as much about them as possible.

From the order Proboscidea (fitting with the elephant having a proboscis, or trunk), the family Elephantidae and the genus/species Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant has much in common with its African counterparts.

However, Asian elephants prove to be much smaller in size and stature than the African elephant.

According to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, “Asian elephants grow up to 21 feet long, stand up to 10 feet tall, and weigh about 11,000 pounds.”

The females tend to have slightly smaller features.

These creatures tend to have different behavioral characteristics than their African relatives as well.

The Smithsonian’s site describes how “female and young male Asian elephants live in cohesive herds of related adults and their offspring.”

It continues to describe how “the matriarch, usually the oldest and largest female, sets the pace of the group’s activities.”

With such strong feminine roles in their community, it’s no wonder that so many cultures admire the elephant with such veracity.

It’s also important to note that, unlike the African elephant, the Asian elephant is often domesticated and seen as a household companion in many Southeast Asian countries.

Regardless of where it lives, the Asian elephant has several consistent factors within its lifestyle, such as its dietary needs.

Unlike other endangered species like the panda that limit themselves to one option of vegetation, the Asian elephant appears to flexible in what it eats, as long as it meets herbivore requirements.

According to the site of the WWF, these creatures when living in the wild often dine on “grasses, but large amounts of tree bark, roots, leaves and small stems.”

In a contained habitat, such as the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, the elephant feeds on “125 pounds of hay, ten pounds of herbivore pellets, ten pounds of fruits and vegetables, and a few leafy branches.”

With such a healthy diet, the Smithsonian’s site ventures the wild elephants may live up to be 60, though many dangerous circumstances often prevent this from happening.

Wherever they happen to be found, Asian elephants prove to be both beautiful specimens and invaluable contributors to the natural world. Without these creatures, our world would surely be lacking in knowledge, understanding, and cute YouTube videos.

Fun Facts:
• Asian elephants have the capability of doing tasks with their trunks ranging from lifting up a piece of grass to cutting down a tree.
• The trunk of the elephant contains at least 40,000 muscles.
• The Asian elephant is one of the few species that can acknowledge and recognize its face in a mirror.
• This elephant has the largest brain of all mammals living on land.
• To communicate, these elephants use a variety of noises as well as low-frequency sounds that can be heard over great distances.

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