The following information is accurate for the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). African elephant varieties (Genus: Loxodonta) vary greatly from Asian elephants in many characteristics, such as size, shape, general appearance, and demeanor.
- Asian elephants are smaller than their African counterparts, though they can reach 6.4m in length, stand as tall as 3m at the shoulder, and weigh a colossal 5 tonnes!
- Male (bull) elephants tend to be larger than females (cows), with the latter weighing in at a maximum of around 4.5 tonnes.
- Newborn elephants (calves) generally weigh between 50-150kg.
- The gestation period of elephants is approximately 2 years.
- Calves will typically stay with their mother (or a special ‘Nanny’ or ‘Aunt’ chosen by the mother in case of emergency) until they are around 4 years of age, when they will begin to act more independently.
- Female elephants are more social than males, and they usually move in herds, with a clearly selected ‘Alpha’ who will lead the others.
- Males generally stay in the herd until around 13 years of age, when they will be excluded from the herd, living either alone or in a small group of males.
- Elephants are considered fully-grown when they are around 17 years of age.
- Elephants have a lifespan roughly equivalent to that of humans, and will usually live to around 70 years in the wild, though very healthy elephants have been known to live longer. Naturally, elephants kept in captivity and subjected to abuse, overwork, or poor diet tend to have greatly reduced lifespans.
Diet and Behaviour:
- Elephants eat a huge amount, needing to consume an average of 150kg of food each day just to survive! Larger elephants will eat much more, with some known to eat up to 300kg/day.
- They also need to drink a great deal of water, with some estimating that each elephant must drink 150L per day.
- An elephant’s diet typically consists of a variety of jungle plants, fruits, and vegetables. Specifically, they enjoy such delicacies as bamboo shoots and leaves, rice, bananas, sugar cane, corn, tree bark, and jungle leaves.
- Only 40-50% of the food elephants eat is successfully digested.
- Asian elephants usually sleep for a mere 4 hours at night, and spend most of the rest of their time eating in order to satisfy their enormous appetites.
- Elephants are self-aware and highly intelligent. They exhibit human-like behaviour such as learning, mimicry, play, co-operation and the creation and use of tools.
- They also experience a broad array of emotions, such as grief, happiness, and compassion.
- Wild elephants bathe and will cover themselves and others in their herd with mud or dirt as a natural form of insect repellent and sunscreen.
- Female Asian elephants typically either do not have tusks, or have very small tusks which are barely visible.
- Many males grow large tusks, but in certain areas in Asia the percentage of elephants who receive the hereditary tusk trait has been reduced to around 5% (This may be due to a history of excessive poaching of elephants for their ivory in these areas).
- Tusks are used for a variety of tasks, including digging, removing bark from trees, protection for the trunk, as an offensive and defensive weapon, and to move fallen trees or branches.
- Asian elephant skin varies in thickness between 18mm-30mm depending on the area of the body, with the thickest skin at their rear.
- The ears contain a very high number of blood vessels, and by waving their ears repeatedly in hot weather, elephants are able to slightly cool their body temperature.
- Elephants have an excellent sense of smell, but they also use their trunks for many other purposes, such as breathing, drinking, eating, showing affection, washing, fighting, gripping, and sound communication.
- The trunk contains up to 60,000 muscles, and can hold around 4 litres of water at any one time.
Social Structure and Emotional Capacity:
Elephants express an array of emotions and establish close family bonds. They play, fight, cry, greet one another, and show special concern for their young. Elephants exposed to extreme levels of stress and abuse have also exhibited signs of mental illness and behavioural dysfunction.
Elephants also mourn their dead, often grieving and gathering together to guard the bodies for days. They have even been known to ‘bury’ them with vegetation. In addition, they have been observed becoming highly agitated and showing great interest in the bones, skulls, and tusks of other, long-dead elephants.
Elephants are among the most intelligent animals on the planet. Their brains feature 300 billion neurons, as well as areas and general connectivity similar to human brains. Asian elephants display the largest volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing of any land animal. They exhibit a wide array of behaviours and practices demonstrative of high levels of cognition, including many activitied typically primarily associated with human intelligence and morality, such as altruism.
Elephants are highly skilled users of a variety of tools, both practiced and improvised. Older matriarchs teach younger elephants how to use sticks to swat flies from their bodies and to use scraps of vegetation to scratch themselves. Asian elephants have been observed utilising insightful and spontaneous problem solving abilities in order to attain food rewards during scientific testing. They have been demonstrated to be capable of moving objects and climbing them in order to reach food suspended at previously unattainable heights, and even to stack several smaller objects before climbing.
Although it is not known whether elephants have the capacity to exhibit any true artistic ability, it is a common exploitative practice for them to be trained to paint at a highly skilled level. They are typically trained to paint for the entertainment of tourists at elephant shows, where the paintings are then sold for further profit. Usually, an elephant will be trained to draw a specific image, such as that of an elephant running, or a bunch of flowers. Such painting elephants are usually conditioned to respond to verbal commands, and they are also commonly taught to recognise directional movements and tugs on their ear, which correspond to individual brush strokes. The elephants’ ability to hold (and make specific, delicate movements with) a paintbrush demonstrates the adaptability and dexterity of their trunks, as well as the power of their incredible memory and intelligence.
Linguistic Skills and Communication Ability:
Due to their highly social nature and remarkable intelligence, elephants have developed complex methods of communication involving multiple senses. They are known to communicate about their physiological and emotional states, as well as communicating specific statements regarding their intentions and desires, or stimuli considered threatening to themselves or their herd.
Acoustically, elephants can create a broad array of sounds – at up to 112dB and which may vary in frequency over 4 octaves – including snorts, barks, roars, cries, and low-frequency growls. Asian elephants also have the unique ability to create a chirping noise. Incredibly, an Asian elephant named Koshik living in a South Korean zoo was recorded ‘speaking’ at least 5 distinct Korean words, including “good,” “no,” “hello,” and “sit down.” Koshik developed unique methods of sound production and modulation in order to vocally mimic commands he frequently heard being used by his handler. In order to create the desired sounds – most of which elephants cannot naturally produce, such as human vowel sounds – Koshik found he could place the tip of his tongue into his mouth and move his lower jaw in a specific way.
In addition to acoustic communication, elephants also perform specific actions, move, and gesture with individual body parts in order to display a variety of intentions and communicate non-verbally. For instance, dominant elephants within a herd will display their status through the use of aggressive or confident body language, such as holding their head high on their shoulders and spreading their ears. Submissive elephants will hunch with their head held low and their ears pushed back. As well as instances of full-body communication, such as charging, elephants use individual body parts to send various messages and express emotion, pleasure/displeasure, or discomfort. These may include their heads, tails, trunks, ears, eyes, feet, mouth, and in the case of bull elephants, the tusks.
Elephants also employ a wide range of tactile, seismic, and even chemical communication methods.
For further information on both African and Asian elephant communication, specific details about the biological basis of their ability to communicate, and a fantastic database of various elephant calls, please visit: www.elephantvoices.org/elephant-communication
During controlled experiments, Asian elephants have passed the ‘mirror self-recognition’ (MSR) test, which gauges self-awareness by determining whether an animal can recognize its own reflection in a mirror as an image of itself. This can accomplished by surreptitiously marking the animal with an odorless dye, and observing whether the animal reacts in a manner consistent with it being aware that the dye is located on its own body.
Such behaviour might include turning and adjusting of the body in order to better view the marking in the mirror, or poking at the marking on its own body with a finger – or in the case of an elephant, a trunk – while viewing the mirror. In one case, two crosses were painted on the head of an elephant (one using visible colour, and the other using a colourless dye, in order to account for factors such as odour and tactile sensation). While viewing itself in a mirror, the elephant was able to touch the coloured cross several times, while the invisible cross remained untouched. The small number of species to have passed the MSR mirror test include chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, dolphins, elephants, humans and Eurasian magpies.
2 of the primary reasons for the endangered status of elephants:
Illegal trade in ivory is still highly profitable and many merciless poachers hunt and kill elephants, remove the tusks and leave the bodies to rot just to make a profit. Ivory is the main reason for the dramatic decline in population from close to 10 million African elephants 100 years ago to less than half million African elephants today. Poaching has traditionally also been a severe problem in Thailand and other Asian countries, and strict penalties are now applied in an effort to deter poachers, and stabilise and maintain the declining elehant population. Sadly, if the current downward population trend continues, in less than 30 years elephants could become extinct. It is estimated that, while Asian elephants at the turn of the century numbered more than 100,000 in Thailand alone (and likely in the millions globally), the worldwide population has decreased to around 30,000. Of these, only 2500-4000 live in Thailand, and most of those live in captivity.
Habitat loss occurs partially because human population is constantly increasing which leads to conflicts between elephants and humans, and this in most cases results in death of these majestic animals. Constant demand for land development for housing and agriculture to feed a growing population, as well as a constant demand for resources such as wood also play a major part in the destruction of elephants’ natural habitat. An adult elephant consumes 140–270kg of food a day (for an adult elephant, approximately 150kg/day is needed in order to simply survive), and the destruction of their territory results in less freely available food, which may lead to the starvation of many individuals. As more of their natural areas continue to be depleted, elephants are increasingly forced to fight for the small amount of food that happens to be present, and are often driven into villages and farmlands in an effort to eat at a subsistence level. Naturally, this causes conflicts with farmers and other people, who have been known to kill elephants foraging in their crops to preserve their livelihoods. Even though elephants can, and often do, travel large distances to find food, if they are deprived of a necessary amount for a significant length of time, they will become weak and become unable to travel.
The relationship between the Mahout and the Elephant
‘Mahout’ is a widespread term for an elephant caretaker, a profession and lifestyle which is representative of an ancient and sacred relationship between humans and elephants, developed over the course of the past 1300 years. ‘Mahout’ comes from the Hindi word mahaut, meaning “elephant driver.” Usually, a mahout starts as a boy in the ‘family profession’ when he is assigned an elephant early in its life. The relationship between mahout and elephant develops over time into a strong and loving bond, and often lasts the entire life of both of them, as an elephant’s life expectancy is approximately the same as that of a human.
Mahouts must learn to control their elephant to ensure the safety of themselves, the elephant, and other humans and elephants around them. Mahouts traditionally employ a few different tools, besides training their elephant to obey over 40 verbal commands, to control their elephant. Mahouts’ use of the bull hook is as ancient as their relationship with the elephant. This traditional tool serves to touch pressure points in order to direct the elephant and can be compared to a riding stick used with horses. While it can be used excessively and inappropriately (at some low-quality elephant camps, for example), it is not typically used with the intention to cause harm. At Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, we do not believe that the use of a bull hook is necessary, particularly because we do not force our elephants to commit any unnatural behaviours.
Although it is difficult to know the exact population of the Karen people, it is estimated that there are approximately 7 million Karen people living in northern Thailand and southern Myanmar, of which at least 300000 (potentially as many as 1000000+) reside in Thailand. They speak a different language to Thai (although many are now fluent in Thai and even English), and live mainly in the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand, far from the major cities. The areas in which they live are typically natural elephant habitats. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and people of the Karen hill-tribes have something of a symbiotic relationship, and it is only with their partnership and co-operation that we are able to offer a truly ethical elephant tourism experience, as well as protect the remaining elephant habitats and preserve the elephant population in Thailand.