Elephants constitute the largest living land animals today and their ancestors have held that status going back to the mammoths and mastodons (Rohland et al 2010). There are actually three species of extant elephants. One is found in India (Elephas maximus indicus) and two live in Africa. The two African species feature one that primarily lives in dense jungle/woodlands mostly in equatorial and west Africa (Loxodonta Africa cyclotis) and one that sprawls across the savannahs of eastern and southern Africa (Loxodonta Africana Africana). There is a small zone of hybridization in central Africa, although this is not as common in the wild as it is in zoos.
Elephants in Asia
Elephants now number a few hundred thousand in Asia, where perhaps as many as a million used to roam. They are more common in India than any other state although Bangladesh and all the Southeast Asian countries have significant populations.
A particular feature of the lives of some elephants in Asia, as opposed to Africa, is that at one time a significant proportion of them were used in hauling operations in remote areas (generally in the lumber industry) and some still are. (They have largely been supplanted by trucks, tractors, and specialized mechanized equipment).
A much smaller percentage today are housed in temple quarters owing, in part, to their connection with Hindu religious traditions, and for use in ceremonies and festival parades. (This is not to say they live a cosseted life, owing to factors that will be discussed shortly). The majority that remain in India and Sri Lanka, at least, live in forest preserves, where some attempts are made to conserve them (Badola et al 2010, Baskaran, Udhayan & Desai 2010, Govindaraj 2010, Gubbi 2011).
While both Asian and forest elephants in Africa routinely prefer leaves and twigs from trees and bushes, they can switch to grasses opportunistically. One of the favorites of Asian elephants (and forest elephants in Africa) are tree fruit, which are a major cash crop, which puts them in conflict with farmers, although ironically in Sri Lanka at least, farmers are, in consequence, turning to citrus production, in part because elephants there do not prefer it. However, by far the the largest cash crop in all Asia, rice, is often raided by elephant bands at harvest time (Chelliah et al 2010, Jotikapukkana, Berg, & Pattanavibool 2010, Santiappillai & Reed 2010, Santiapillai et al 2010). Deaths to both elephants and humans are not infrequent in trying to scare off the elephants and preserve the harvest (Doyle et al 2010).
Elephants in Africa
While a tiny percentage of African elephants can be found in zoos and circuses, they are overwhelmingly wild, undomesticated animals, whose present population numbers are in the hundreds of thousands, down from the millions as recently as the early twentieth century.
The forest type are significantly more threatened (Bechem & Luhunu 2010, Bouche et al 2010, Lindsell, Klop & Siaka 2011, Lindsell, Klop, & Siaka 2011, Rood, Ganie & Nijman 2010 ) than the savannah species.
While there are some truly gigantic game parks (large relative to European and even most North American equivalents), a significant number of African elephants of both types are still living close to the park borders or in unrestricted areas where deadly clashes with ivory poachers (Martin & Martin 2010, Messer 2010) and natives hunter-gatherer tribespeople and indigenous farmers are a sorry fact of life (Graham et al 2010, Monney, Dakwa, & Wiafe 2010, Ouattara, Soulemane, Nandjui & Tondoh 2010). Elephants are scarcely alone in their fatal encounters with humans and their crops. To the surprise of many who think them solely placid water plant eaters, hippos also frequently raid crops and attack and kill humans who try to fend them off (Kendall 2011).
The Diet & Water Needs of Elephants Actively Determine the Landscape
Because they are so large, elephants (particularly African Savannah elephants) are seen as much as shapers of their surroundings rather than as being shaped by their surroundings. They do this largely through the long term effects of their dietary habits and water-seeking (Buitenwerf, Swemmer & Peel 2011, de Knegt et al 2011, O’Connor 2010).
Probably no other animal in the wild has its diet and travel ways so thoroughly analyzed through the seemingly continuous analysis of their poop: largely because the droppings are enormous and easily located with fresh new specimens available to researchers at least once daily from individual elephants so changes in thier diet can be monitored (Codron et al 2011).
When African savannah elephants enter a field which contains a mixture of trees, shrubs, and grasses, they may choose any one of them for forage to obtain the 400 lbs. or so of vegetation that they typically ingest every day. However the choice most likely to be adverse to the local ecosystems occurs when they forage on the youngest trees or the mid-level shrubs.
Why would they do this? At certain times of the year (mostly during dry spells) ordinarily grass-loving savannah elephants are likely to find greater nutritional density in the browse from trees and bushes than from the available grasses. The impact of savannah elephant browsing in terms of lost shade and diminished topsoil retention can be immediate , and recovery can take quite a while, particularly if an area has already been logged commercially (Bonnell, Reyna-Hurtado, & Chapman 2011).
However, during the rainy season almost all savannah elephants switch back almost exclusively to tall lush (and presumably more nutrient-dense) grasses, sparing the damage to trees and mid-level shrubs (Codron et al 2011).
Interestingly a number of trees and mid-level shrubs have evolved mutualisms with insects, which do not appreciably harm the trees, whereby the insects will instead bite/harass the elephants who attempt to browse on them (Goheen & Palmer 2010).
This savannah elephant tree and mid-level brush browsing would seem to be entirely detrimental to the landscape save for perhaps three offsetting behaviors.
First, elephant dung is a tremendous source of food to burrowing insects, such as termites and dung beetles, whose ferocious level of industry further mixes the animal waste into the substrate (60% of which is actually relatively undigested and serves as an excellent mulch) actually enriching the soil (Aarrestad et al 2011, Banks et al 2010, Levick 2010) and supporting more green growth.
Second, savannah elephants are also among the first to return to areas of the veldt that have been burned via lightning storms, as they can better tolerate the coarse remnants digestively, and their subsequent droppings actually speed the recovery of the local ecosystem in terms of small grazers returning to well fertilized tender growth (Sensenig, Demment & Laca 2010).
Third, elephants are actually rather good at finding underground water and will use their tusks to dig up what become temporary water holes that a wide variety of other animals can subsequently share (Augustine 2010, Franz et al 2011). These water holes may become more permanent when the rains come, changing the landscape for the better on the largely arid savannahs. This behavior is perhaps even more altruistic than might be expected since it is almost exclusively only during water hunting forays and "well digging" that the distracted elephants experience the otherwise rarely successful attacks of lions on their drought-weakened young (Joubert 2006, Loveridge et al 2006).
However, elephant overpopulation may not be entirely offset by the good the herds do, and even abundant rainfall may not provide enough vegetation to sustain densely crowded elephant populations (Hayward & Zawadzka 2010).
Elephant Sensory Capacity, Intelligence & Sociability
Elephants have enormous and exceptionally well developed brains (Fowler & Mikota2006, Hakeem et al. 2009, Hart & Pinter-Woman 2008, Shoshani, Kupsky & Marchant 2006). They possess self-awareness, recognize themselves in mirrors (Plotnik, de Waal, & Reiss 2006, Plotnik et al 2010), and demonstrate innate intelligence at least on a par with primates and are possibly as bright as dolphins (Byrne, Bates & Moss 2009).
They have excellent hearing and communicate with a wide variety of vocalizations that seem to convey not only specific information but also mood states (Nair et al 2009, Soltis, Blowers, & Savage 2011).
While they have a keen sense of smell (Santiapillai & Read 2010) they have terrible eyesight (Baproda et al 2010, Pettigrew et al 2010).
They are highly social and live for the most part in matriarchal groups and practice a great deal of caring for one another’s offspring (Bates 2008, Bradshaw & Schore 2007, De Waal 1998, De Waal 2006, Lee 1987).
They appear to show sadness at the death of important individuals from their group, especially matriarchs (Douglas-Hamilton et al 2006).
There is much that we still do not understand about an elephant’s interior life (Irie & Hasegawa 2009) but we do know that it seems built for cooperativity with its own kind (Schulte 2000) and that elephants actually suffer in captivity when kept alone and isolated from other elephants (Nolen 2011).
Perhaps the most intriguing insight into elephant intelligence and willingness to cooperate is documented by Plotnik et al (2011). In an experiment conducted with the cooperation of mahouts (handlers who maintain a special lifelong welfare oversight and training relationship with a particular elephant ) conducted in a Thai elephant refuge center, a series of elephants were trained to pull a rope, for which they were rewarded with corn in a bowl.
The table on which the corn was placed was later rigged with a special rope with two ends, both ends of which had to be pulled in order for the table to slide within reach, and for the bowl then to be emptied of its corn.
No elephant acting on his or her own could pull the rope and make the table slide forward. Instead, the rope merely pulled out from the table.
If, in a pair of elephants one of them pulled at the rope but the other did not, the table would not slide forward, and no reward was forthcoming either.
Eventually, the elephants determined that they would somehow have to do this rope-pulling task together without any prompting from their mahouts, and did so.
Their techniques varied. Some pulled from their side using their trunk and their mouth. Others used only their trunk.
One particularly clever female managed to have her male elephant partner do all the real work, for she simply trapped the rope on her side under her foot, making her partner have to pull twice as hard on his end to get the table to slide forward.
Elephants who saw no rope around the table eventually did not bother going forward to manage in some other way to obtain the corn. They sensed (correctly as it turned out) that without the rope there was no use wasting their time.
However, the elephants developed a sense of patience. Some elephants who knew that another elephant might be nearby would advance to the usual location of the rope on his or her side alone, and wait for another elephant to show up on the other side.
If none showed up, the dsappointed elephant moved away. But they had an unusually long period in which they were content to stay in hope: 45 seconds. This is much longer than chimps and a variety of other animals tested along similar lines.
Interestingly, their intent to seek cooperative opportunities was not extinguished if no one showed up. They would try again later, and as test showed, they often succeeded.
What is the future of the elephant?
Despite the fact that encroaching human population and elephant habitat loss are very real threats, there is a significant shift among many citizens in countries where elephants are native. They have come to see that elephant conservation and resultant eco-tourism may well be a better way to make a living than subsistence farming or ivory poaching (Fischer, Muchapondwa & Sterner 2011), and in addition, that such preserves as are being set up allow for as much space as possible about which elephants might forage and roam, especially including protection of incoming sources of water (Jotikapukkana, Berg, & Pattanavibool 2010), and that temple and zoo animals be allowed to live in groups where they could develop a social life or elephant culture (Vanitha, Thiyagesan, & Baskaran 2011).
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