World Elephant Day 2020

Lisa Stalknecht
11 August 2020

Today is World Elephant Day! Did you know that the word “elephant” means “huge arch” in Latin? Elephants are the largest land mammals on earth. Once upon a time elephants were very common throughout Africa and Asia but elephant populations have declined dramatically during the 20th century.

Females elephants (also referred as cows) live in groups, called herds, with their calves. Those herds are a matricidal society. This means the herd is led by a head cow. The head cow is the oldest and largest of the herd -known as the matriarch. The males, also referred as bulls, live alone and only interact with the females when it is mating time. All elephants are herbivores - in a day they can consume hundreds of kilos of plant matter. This is why they need large areas to meet their ecological, food and water needs, to survive. As they lose habitat due to development, they come in conflict with people in competition for resources.

There are three kinds of elephants walking around the world. People first thought that there were only two kinds of elephants but in 2010 researchers found out by a detailed genetic study that there’s a third elephant species: the African forest elephant. The latter along with the African savanna elephant are the two species that occur in Africa. They are genetically different from each other and can be found in completely different habitats. The Asian elephant, found in Asia, has four subspecies: the Indian elephant, the Sumatran elephant, Sri Lankan elephant and the Bornean elephant. In this blog I will focus on the main species - the two African elephants and the Asian elephant.

The easiest way to differentiate the three species from each other (apart from looking at their habitat) is looking at their tusks and ear size. But they differ in other things too such as the shape of their head, their trunks and the number of nails. 


The African savanna elephantsavele3

With a height of 3 to 4 meters and a weight of 4 – 7 tonnes the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana), also known as the African bush elephant, is the largest of all three elephant species. Technically, this makes the African savanna elephant the largest land animal on Earth. They can live up to 70 years and can be found in eastern and southern Africa where they wander around the grassy plains and bushes. Their diet consists mostly out of grasses, but they also eat a wide variety of fruits and plants. They have the largest ears compared to the other elephant species. The function of those large ears is to release excess heat. Their ears are shaped like the continent Africa. Both male and female African elephants have tusks,. The tusks of a savanna elephant are curved, which is different from the forest and Asian elephant. Insert: African savanna elephant (source: Dinoanimals)



The African forest elephant


Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are smaller than the savanna elephants. They are 2,4 to 3 meters high and weight 2 – 5 tonnes. Although they are smaller, they can, like the savanna elephant, also live up to 70 years. The African forest elephant can only be found in the dense rainforests of central and west Africa. The diet of forest elephants consists mainly of leaves and fruit, it’s more a browser and frugivore than their African cousin. At least 43 plant species in central-Africa are depended on the large forest elephant to disperse their seed. The seeds are too hard, big or fibrous for smaller animals. Therefore, the forest elephant is the only animal in Central Africa that has the ability to disperse those seeds. Forest elephants have smaller, oval-shaped ears compared to the other two elephants. The males and females both have tusks, but they are straighter and point downward.  Insert: African forest elephant (source: African forest elephant foundation)


The Asian elephant
Asele2Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are the closest related to the woolly mammoth, that roamed the earth thousands of years ago. The Asian elephant is 2 to 3 meters high and weighs around 2,2 – 5,4 tonnes. In the wild they can live up to 60 years. The Asian elephant can be found in forested areas throughout the whole of Asia. They spend  most of their day feeding, mostly on grasses. But they also eat roots, tree bark, small stems and leaves. Their favourite food are cultivated crops such as sugarcane, bananas and rice. Asian elephants have the smallest ears. They are rounder then the ears of a forest elephant. Whereas all African elephants have tusks, most female Asian elephants don’t have them. If they have tusks, they are invisible and are called “tushes”. The tushes of a female Asian elephant can only be seen when she opens her mouth. There are some male Asian elephants who don’t have tusks at all, these tusk-less males are called “makhnas”. The makhnas are common in the Sri Lankan subspecies, where 90% of the males have no tusks. Insert: Asian elephant. (source: WWF)


Threats and conservation

The main threats for elephants are the demand for ivory and the loss of habitat. In 1989 the ban on the international ivory trade was introduced by CITES. Before the ban almost 80% of the population was lost in some regions. Human populations are still increasing, and so is the need for food. To meet the demand for food, large areas of land once utilised by elephants are now transformed for agriculture. Elephant habitats are now shrinking leading to increased elephants-people conflict.

The Asian elephant is endangered but the African savanna elephant and the African forest elephant are not currently recognized as two distinct species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are currently both classified under  the African elephant as vulnerable. Although according to the African Conservation Foundation forest elephants should be classified as endangered.

The Chinese ban for elephant ivory trade is already a big step in the right direction for elephants but sadly, there is still illegal trade of ivory occurring. Luckily, there are a lot of organizations that protect elephants and help by creating awareness around illegal trade of ivory and to strengthen anti-poaching initiatives. Some also help by reducing human-wildlife conflict by addressing the root of the conflicts, such as habitat fragmentation and loss and creating new protected habitat, where elephants can roam freely.