African Elephants are considered herbivores, they are both browsers and grazers; they will eat rough sticks, stems and leaves of plants as well as grasses, sedges, and fruit. Their favourites are mangoes, berries and coconuts. An elephant eats up to 500 pounds of vegetation every day and drinks up to 50 gallons of water daily.
Elephants must consume these giant quantities of food, due to their poor digestive system. The small intestine is 82 feet long, the large intestine 21 feet long, and the rectum ads a further 13 feet. The problem with the digestive tract lies in their gut; elephants have too few symbiotic bacteria.
These are the organisms, which help break down the cellulose of plant cell walls by producing enzymes called celluloses. The most remarkable feature of the elephant’s digestive system is its 5 feet long appendix, bigger than the stomach- proteins, starches, and sugars are digested in die appendix, the elephant will excrete almost 200 pounds a day of semi-digested food. Elephants live together in strong family units, which might have as few as two or as many as twenty members. When the group gets too big, it splits up; but the groups stay in close contact. Elephant life revolves around this unit, which is usually headed by the oldest female.
The family offers protection, aid, comfort, and teaching to all of its members. Within the units are cows, calves, and bulls. The male bulls are very solitary and most of the time travel only with other males, except during mating season when the bulls travel with the pack looking for a mate. The males remain with the family unit until they are about fourteen and then leave the family to join the other males. The African elephant usually gives birth one calf in every four years. The gestation period is approximately twenty to twenty two years. The newborn calf, which weighs 200-300 pounds and stands about three feet high, is cared for by all of the females in the pack, not just by the mother. The calf may nurse as long as eight years, or until its tusks are too long for the mother.
It takes about 14 to 15 years for an elephant to fully mature. They grow to about 10-13 feet tall and 7.5 meters in length and weigh as much as 7 tons. The family will remain together throughout their lives. The elephant’s body has many special features, which it has adapted throughout the centuries to help it survive in its environment. The most important part of the elephant’s body is its trunk.
An elephant uses its trunk for many things. With it, the elephant can pick up objects that weigh as much as 600 lbs. This powerful trunk is also used to beat off attacking animals and sometimes mother elephants use their trunks to swat their babies. The trunk, which is very flexible, can curl over the elephant’s head so that die elephant can give itself showers and dust baths.
The trunk also curls towards the elephant’s mouth so it can eat and drink. At the end of the trunk the elephant has finger-like projections similar to the human thumb and forefinger. With this the elephant can pick up small objects. Baby elephants often suck their trunks just like human babies suck their thumbs.
The nostrils at the tip of the trunk are highly sensitive, an elephant can detect a water source from as far as 12 miles away, and detect the reproductive status of another elephant from some distance. The elephant also has tusks, which can dig up roots, and help the elephant dig at dried up riverbeds for water. They also help the elephant fight off attackers. The tusks are made of ivory and this is why the elephants are being poached. Poachers can earn $5,000 for just 40 pounds of ivory tusks. Another unusual part of the elephant’s body is its huge ears, which can be four feet wide in the male African elephant.
With their huge ears the elephant swats insects. Although the ears are so big the elephant has poor hearing and rely on their sense of smell. Since the elephant cannot sweat to release heat, they must have another means of releasing their body heat. The elephant will repeatedly beat its ears along side of its head. When they do this the blood in its ears c0ols and the cool blood is then circulated to the rest of the body. The wrinkles in their skin help to increase the surface area of the elephant, which helps in cooling; and mud and water are also trapped under the wrinkles, further helping the elephant to keep cool.
The elephant has four molars on each side of its mouth. The molars of adult elephants are the size of bricks. They get six new sets of molars in a lifetime.
They get their last set when they are about 45 years old, and after those fall out the elephant will starve to death. Elephants are highly intelligent animals. They have very large and well-developed brains and excellent memories. Elephants have strange habits and ways of communication. One means of communication is trumpeting. They have different tones of trumpeting which indicate different moods, such as playfulness and excitement. Trumpeting is also used to frighten off attackers. Their most important way to communicate is what is called stomach rumbles’ although the sound actually comes from its throat.
Scientists have found fifteen types of rumbles indicating different things. One rumble means for the herd to move on, loud rumbles are used to greet family members and other rumbles help them locate each other. Scientists even think that elephants communicate long-distance with this rumbles, which are infrasound, low frequency waves which travel many miles. Elephants can hear and produce notes in the region of 14-16 Hz, well below the range ‘the human ear. Elephants often communicate a lot when they are grieving over die death of a family member.
Because the family is so important, young elephants are very upset when others die. Elephants have been known to bury their dead with twigs and leaves and stay by the “graves” f0r many hours. In 1930 there were five to ten million elephants in Africa but because of poaching and some natural disasters (fires, droughts) their numbers were reduced to about 1.3 million by 1976 and to about 600,000 now. The African elephant was really threatened by hunters and poachers during the years 1978-1989 and was declared an endangered species in 1989. CITES currently lists the African elephant on appendix I, meaning all trade regarding this animal is prohibited. However, since 1989 it has been making a strong comeback because of the efforts of many people and countries to protect them.
In some African countries they are now so over-populated in the lands left available to them that scientists are trying to invent a form of birth- control for elephants. Hunting of the elephant is banned but poaching for ivory is still widespread. In 1989 a stack of 3,000 confiscated tusks worth about $3 million dollars was burned by Kenya’s president. Kenya is one of themany countries taking steps to save the elephants. In Tsavo East National Park in Kenya a group called the Anti-poaching Rangers patrol the park.