The elephant is a symbol of wisdom and strength in all cultures that share the wilds with them. They are the true kings of the jungle and chiefs of the savannahs. Highly regarded as wise and sentient gardeners of the wilderness, they are seen as vital to the ecosystem. Elephants have been used in religious and cultural depiction since the earliest of scriptures, as beasts, spirits and deity. The relationship between human and elephant is evident but is not always beautiful. Its ivory is coveted and its strength and intelligence exploited for business, entertainment and in times past for war. The physiology of an elephant is impressive, it's intelligence is significant, it's empathy is humbling and its spirit is powerful. This article provides insight into the life, intelligence, and ecological value of these great beasts.
With the relatively recent extinction of mammoths, three recognised species of elephant remain on earth, namely, the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), the Forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). The debate continues on how to exactly classify the species and subspecies of these animals spread across Africa and Asia. The largest of the species is the African elephant, as a mature bull weighs between 4 to 6 tonnes. Their shoulder height measures to more than three meters when mature and will eat between 200 - 300 kilogrammes of vegetation daily. The average weight of an elephant cow is 3 tonnes and her shoulder height at 2.5 meters. Other than humans, elephants are the longest living land mammals, capable of reaching sixty years and more in the wild, and even 80 years and onward in captivity. The cause of death at this age is primarily due to starvation when the last set of teeth has been degraded to the gum. Then the elephant cannot chew plant material, causing serious difficulties with digestion, which eventually leads to malnutrition and starvation. Their impressive lifespan, coupled with their size and intelligence makes them unlike any other animal on earth.
The elephant is known as a keystone or umbrella species, meaning that it's presence and conservation value benefits many other species of plants and animals within its environment. Elephants are capable of altering the landscape they traverse significantly. Their power and a constant need to feed creates permanent changes in the landscape leaving trails through the forest, grassland and desert, all the while dropping seeds ready to sprout wherever they travel. By altering the landscape, the elephant provides a variety of habitats for smaller creatures to make use of and call home. However, when the elephant population grows too big and their home range restricted, landscapes can be turned to ruin, leaving the land desolate. The fate of the wilderness is determined by these massive beasts. It is the duty of mankind to keep a watchful eye on these magnificent creatures, as they can make a region flourish or perish.
At first glance, the signs of an elephant's presence seem destructive, with pushed over trees and branches scattered about. However, there are benefits to such destructive behaviour for other creatures and plants. For example, it may allow fruit, seeds and leaves to be accessible to antelope and other terrestrial herbivores that could not reach it before. Niches of habitat are then created for smaller animals due to the sheltering jumbles of branches from pushed over trees. Plants also benefit from this. The branches on the ground act as catchment zones for seeds that would otherwise be washed away into river systems during the rainy season. A seed bank is created that catches grass and other plant seeds in great supply, allowing them to germinate in generally more fertile soils. By having smaller animals eat the fruits and seedpods, the distribution range of seeds will increase for the plant who provided them. Many seed-bearing plants have evolved a higher chance of germination when the seeds travel through an animal's digestive system. As the seeds are discarded in dung, they already bare a nutrient-rich package to aid in the germination process. By having access to and eating a large variety of fruits and pods, elephants are one of the largest contributors to the wild garden as they ensure that the plant genetics spread over large distance. On average a mere 45% of the plant matter which is consumed by the elephant is digested, thus every drop of dung is a potential food source for plants and other animals.
By restricting the home range of the elephants, coupled with bad management and resource limits, some landscapes have been severely altered. By having a limited environment for the animals to traverse, many wilderness sanctuaries suffer an elephant population far over its carrying capacity. When an elephant population is in balance, the environment creates more than enough for continual elephant impact, however, when out of balance the environment suffers. Entire regions can be deforested, leading to severe erosion and loss of biodiversity. Other areas have the inverse problem, where due to human encroachment, poaching or habitat loss the elephant population suffers. If the elephant population is too low, the area suffers encroachment, where the spread of dense vegetation leads to less variation in habitat and biodiversity. Most commonly this leads to loss of grassland species. While plants lose a vital means of seed transport. Plants, insects, reptiles, mammals and birds are affected. Unfortunately, in Africa, some regions are stripped of their elephant population while other regions suffer from an overpopulation. Although conservation efforts attempt to get the system back in balance, the lack of funding, expertise, equipment and viable options, along with an influx of human population, development and poaching adds much complexity to this effort. There have been many stories of success and of loss in this struggle.
Elephants separate into two primary social groups, one containing cows and immature offspring and the other bachelor bulls. It is only when a cow is in estrus that the breeding herd tolerates the presence of adult males. Breeding herds are made up of a family unit of related females, which combine with other family units forming herds of up to 200, departing and rejoining as they please. Before human encroachment, these herds grew up to 1000 and more individuals. The oldest and largest cow of the family unit, clan or herd is the matriarch. She is valued for her wisdom, memory and experience and determines the activities and direction that the herd adhere to. Due to the value of their experience, elephant cows are one of the few animals that live and rule long after their sexual prime. This is rare in nature. When a cow becomes too old to easily keep up with the herd, she passes the role of matriarch to the second oldest and wisest cow. The previous matriarch then tends to follow the herd from afar, lagging behind due to age. The matriarch is able to remember the water sources, the lay of the land and dangers of a region that she had visited when she was young, carrying over this knowledge to the rest of her family. Whenever families and clans meet, the role of Matriarch passes to the oldest cow of the bloodline. It is only in larger groupings of separate clans that the herds have more than one acting matriarch in the same area.
Bulls are shunned from the herd once they have reached sexual maturity since they tend to disrupt the herd and attempt to mate before they have the right. Once the young bulls are chased away, they tend to follow their family from a distance before eventually leaving to wonder on their own. At times they form small groups of between 2 to 14 individuals, which we call bachelor groups. Such groups of up to 144 individuals have been recorded, though this is very rare. Even large groups of 30 plus are elusive in recent years. As with breeding herds, the young bulls learn from the older and wiser elephants. The presence of younger bulls is generally accepted, however when the urge to breed sets in, they gain a different temperament. The oldest, largest and strongest bulls challenge any other bull that it must for the right to breed. This period is called 'musth', meaning mischievous, destructive or violent in Urdu, a language native to Pakistan. While in musth, a bull undergoes a change in body chemistry that alters its behaviour and makes it generally more aggressive. This is due to the highly increased level of testosterone. Some studies have found that testosterone levels can even multiply by 100 times. In this state, the bull secretes a liquid from its temporal gland situated between the eyes and ears, similar to other emotional states of elephants. Also, a strong smelling green liquid is secreted and drips from the penis of the elephant, which alerts other elephants of his presence and intent to mate. Only the strongest elephants earn the right to mate.
The significance of elephant social society and intelligence is evident. Elephants learn as much as possible from the most experienced members of their society as it is crucial to their survival. An example of this value was shown in Hluhluwe National Park and Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa. In these parks, young elephant males were aggressive toward rhinos, killing a number of them. This type of aggression toward rhino is not normal for elephants. The decision was made to introduce a few older and more experienced bulls from elsewhere into the parks in order to discipline the younger bulls. Soon after, the experienced bulls displayed their dominance and did indeed change the ways of the younger bulls, teaching them to leave the rhinos be. A simple solution to a complex conservation problem. It is also by this transfer of knowledge from one elephant to another that allows for desert elephants to wander around for hundreds of kilometres, never losing their way. Knowing the location of key sources of food and water along the ancient elephant highways is crucial. It is only where the environment has been restricted in size, that some elephants are not able to migrate the massive distances that they once did.
The intelligence of these magnificent beasts are well documented. The average elephant of a Mahut in Asia is able to understand more than two hundred different verbal commands. This excludes the subtle tactile commands that the Mahut gives by gently placing pressure with his toes on key spots behind the ear of the elephant. Elephants are also able to pass the 'mirror self-recognition test' where they immediately understand that they themselves are reflected. This sets them aside from a large portion of the animal world. Family members that were separated for decades immediately react in excitement when reunited with one another. This happens even if the separation occurred when the elephants were very young. The phrase, 'memory of an elephant', cannot be overstated. By comparing the weight of the brain to body mass of the animal, a rough estimation of intelligence can be quantified. This called the 'encephalization quotient'. On this scale, elephants average at 1.3 and more. Some studies have reported an EQ of up to 2 plus, which will put their EQ just below that of the great apes. To put this in perspective, the great apes are able to learn sign language, count and commonly use tools for a variety of reasons. Tool use has also been reported in elephant behaviour, however, this is not common. An elephant will primarily use their tusks as tools when their powerful trunk is not up to the task.
Much more can be said about the physiology, organisation, ecological value and intelligence of the elephant. These mighty beasts have a physiology like none other, and an intelligence that ranks them above most of the animal world. As a keystone species, determining the fate of their environment, these animals are of the utmost importance to entire regions of natural ecosystems. The continued restraint on their habitat, along with poaching and limited resources for conservation, make the future look bleak for these giants. By understanding their behaviour, intelligence, emotions and ecological impact we can help preserve them. It is the responsibility of the human species to respect and manage these beasts, in order for harmony to return to the wilds of Africa and Asia.
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