Elephant—An Online Encyclopedia Entry

Either of two species, Elephas maximus (the Indian elephant), and Loxodonta africana (the African elephant), of the family Elephantidae (order Proboscidea), characterized by their large size, long trunk (elongated nose), columnar legs, large ears (especially L. africana), and huge head.

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Asian Elephant

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African Elephant

Elephants are grayish to brown in colour, and their body hair is sparse and coarse. Both species have two upper incisors that grow into tusks, but these are usually absent in the female Indian elephant. The nostrils are located at the end of the dexterous muscular, which is used for breathing, eating, and drinking. Elephants drink by sucking water up into the trunk and then squirting it into the mouth. They eat by detaching grasses, leaves, and fruit with the tip of the trunk and using it to place this vegetation in the mouth. By means of a small, fingerlike projection on the tip of the trunk--African elephants have two of these extremities and Indian elephants have one--they are able to pick up small objects.

The African elephant is the largest living land animal, weighing up to 7,500 kg (8 tons) and standing 3 to 4 m (10 to 13 feet) at the shoulder. The Indian elephant weighs about 5,500 kg with a shoulder height of 3 m; its ears are considerably smaller than those of the African elephant. The molar teeth of elephants do not erupt all at once; rather, a new one grows forward as the existing tooth wears down. The sixth and final pair of molars is worn down at about 60 years (L. africana), so few elephants live beyond this age.

E. maximus is native to the Indian subcontinent and southeastern Asia; L. africana is found in sub-Saharan Africa. Both species live in habitats ranging from thick jungle to savanna. They live in small family groups led by old cows; where food is plentiful the groups join in larger herds. Most bulls live in bachelor herds apart from the cows. Elephants migrate seasonally, according to the availability of food and water. They spend many hours eating and may consume more than 225 kg (500 pounds) of grasses and other vegetation in a day. Gestation averages 22 months. Mature male elephants annually enter a condition known as musth, which is marked by secretions from the musth glands behind the eye, an increase in aggression, and association with females that usually leads to mating.

For many centuries the Indian elephant has been important as a ceremonial and draft animal. Commanded by its handler (or mahout), the elephant has been basic to Southeast Asian logging operations. African elephants are also used as draft animals, but not as extensively.

Elephants are in great danger from habitat destruction and human exploitation. The Indian elephant is considered an endangered species, and the African elephant is classified as threatened. African elephants suffer particularly from poaching for the ivory trade. Overpopulation often occurs in wildlife reserves, resulting in further habitat loss and the need for controlled culling of their numbers. Conservation measures include protection from poaching and the creation of large reserves, including corridor areas to protect major migratory routes.

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