Elephants: Roaming with the HerdBy Anne Cissel
Let’s travel to Asia to discover the wonders of these massive, majestic mammals.
Imagine you’re standing in a forest. You hear the ground rumbling, leaves rustling, branches cracking. The noise gets louder and louder. The sunlight breaks through the trees, and you see them: more than a dozen Asian elephants, a cloud of dust swirling around them.
If you had glimpsed the elephants in the photo above, you rush of amazement and wonder. But what is it about these giant creatures that’s so fantastic?
Their size? An adult male weighs more than two medium-sized cars.
Their trunks? That one-of-a-kind body part can be used as an arm, a hand, a nose, a hose, and a loud trumpet.
Their intelligence? Elephants are known for making tools and solving problems. They have excellent memories, too.
The answer: All of these things and more. Sadly, there are only half as many Asian elephants in the wild as there were about 60 years ago. Keep reading, and let’s find out why it’s so important to help these incredible creatures survive.
The Asian elephant is the largest land animal in Asia. But the prize for Earth’s biggest land animal goes to its cousin, the African elephant. There are other differences, too (see diagram).
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Asian elephants usually hang out in the grassy areas, forests, and other wild places of 13 countries (see map). But sometimes they wander onto roads and into farms, villages, and even cities! (More on that later.) As you can imagine, an animal as big as an elephant has a GIANT appetite. An adult needs to eat up to 330 pounds of plants per day, and it will spend up to 18 hours doing so! Elephants usually walk a few miles every day, searching for leafy snacks. They can drink more than 50 gallons of water each day, so they stay near rivers and lakes.
Females, or cows, and young elephants, or calves, hang out together in groups known as herds. The males, or bulls, leave their herds once they reach 8 to 13 years old. They then live alone or with a few other bulls.
An Asian elephant calf weighs about 220 pounds at birth. It had time to get that big: Its mom was pregnant for more than a year and a half! It’s hard for a predator to take down an adult elephant because of its size. But sometimes a tiger will capture a calf, so the cows keep their babies close. All the cows in a herd share the work of caring for the calves.
An elephant’s trunk has an incredible number of jobs. It’s needed for basic survival: eating and drinking and breathing. The trunk is also like a really strong arm—but without bones. It’s made of many different muscles. In fact, it has many more muscles than an entire human body has! The trunk can pick up and hold an object that weighs hundreds of pounds. It is also strong enough to knock down trees. At the tip of the trunk, there’s a “finger” that is prehensile (pree-HEN-sul). That means it can grasp things.
By sniffing with the two nostrils at the end of the trunk, an elephant can smell food or water several miles away. An elephant also uses its trunk to spray water and dust over its body to cool off, protect its skin from the sun, and remove pesky insects. And the elephant can blow air through the trunk to make loud trumpeting noises that can be heard from far away.
Weighing 9 to 13 pounds, the elephant brain is bigger than any other land animal’s brain. And an elephant uses it to do all sorts of clever things. It can figure out how to make and use tools, such as broken-off branches to scratch hard-to-reach itchy skin. One elephant in a zoo figured out how to turn a big plastic cube into a stepping stool to reach a yummy treat. Elephants are also one of the few animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror!
Elephants can be very chatty, with lots of different ways to talk to each other. One way is to make rumbles—deep, vibrating noises that are often too low for humans to hear. You might be able to feel them, if you were standing right next to the elephant. But elephants can hear them from miles away! Their hearing is very good, but they also use sensors on the bottoms of their feet to feel the rumbles’ vibrations. These mighty mammals have over 70 different vocal sounds, but they also “talk” with body language, smell, and touch.
ELEPHANTS AND PEOPLE
Asian elephants have long been symbols of wisdom, strength, patience, and power. In the Hindu religion, an important god, Ganesha, has the head of an elephant. Long ago, soldiers rode elephants into war. If you visited parts of Asia today, you would see people using elephants for many purposes. Some are used in religious ceremonies. Others carry heavy loads. Some give rides to tourists seeking adventure. But elephants would be happier hanging out with other elephants in the wild.
Unfortunately, wild Asian elephants are very endangered. It’s illegal to capture a wild elephant, but still people do it. People have also built roads, buildings, and farms in elephant habitat. Because of this, elephants will walk into towns and villages looking for food.
There they might hurt somebody, damage property, or eat people’s crops. This makes people want to get rid of the elephants, sometimes by killing them.
But many people are trying to save these elephants. Putting fences around farms can keep elephants from eating crops. Teams of people can be trained to safely move herds away from towns, sometimes by making loud noises or shining bright lights. The best solution is to protect the wild places that elephants call home. That way, the elephants have enough room to roam free, as they have for millions of years.