The Mighty Elephant, the Real King of the Savanna

“The premature elimination of elephants over much of their range represents one of the most wasteful mammalian tragedies of the century”

-Ian Douglas Hamilton, 1987
Elephant Female in the Masai Mara, Kenya
Matriarch Approaching
Elephant Herd Passing By

I’m closing these series of posts exactly one year after my unforgettable trip to the Masai Mara,  and for the end I left the best, my absolute favorite animal, the sweet and gentle elephant.

Despite their huge size, the largest land animal on earth is actually very similar to us humans, except that it is probably much nicer. Yes, elephants lives are generally pacific, characterized by cooperation rather than conflict. They can live up to 70 years in the wild and because they form societies, they get to know one another very intimately. Just like us, every birth is cause for celebration, and every death seems to be mourn very deeply.

An Elephant Cow with its Youngest Calf

The basic unit of this society is the cow-calf group made up of a matriarch, usually the oldest cow, her adult female daughters, her sisters and cousins and all their immature offsprings. This ladies’ club can get very big with more than 20 members, but the average is 10 or less. Most females will stay with their original group for a lifetime, but occasionally, some will develop a following and leave to become their own leaders.

Mom and offsprings walking together

Now males are destined to leave their natal group as soon as they mature (between 10 to 20 years), and those who test the patience of the older females don’t make it that long, they are immediately ousted for bad behavior. When the bull leaves its original group it begins a lonely wondering through the savanna in search of potential female mates. The only time we will see mature male elephants in larger groups is when he finds a female in heat. Otherwise lone bulls spend time around other bulls forming loose bachelor clubs whose members change every day.

Even when they Walk the Social Hierarchy is Kept

The social hierarchy of these groups is based on size and age, with the largest and oldest females at the top and the smallest and youngest coming at last. The pace of the group is set by the matriarch, when she stops to feed, everybody else does the same thing making sure they remain within 150 feet of their leader. They act as one whether they are feeding, bathing or just walking to their next destination, and when danger threatens the group they all bunch together and follow the matriarch’s lead.

Evolution of the Proboscidea. Artwork by Vladimir Nikolov, digital design by Docho Dochev

With only two living species left, the African (Loxodontia africana) and the Asian (Elephas maximus) it is hard to believe that this order, the proboscidea, was once one of the most successful mammal groups on Earth. While they originated in Africa, the proboscidea managed to conquer almost every continent on this planet.

According to Dr. Jeheskel Shoshani in Elephants Majestic Creatures of the Wild, “based on available evidence scientists believe that at the base of the elephant family tree, there were pig-sized mammals that lived some 50 to 60 million years ago. These animals made up the basic stock from which other elephant-like mammals collectively know as proboscideans (named after their most distinguished organ, the proboscis or trunk) evolved. This vast array of species developed through natural selection and adaptive radiation during the Cenozoic Era, a period that covered approximately 55 million years.” According to the fossil record, the proboscideans inhabited Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America. Their geographical distribution ranged from Austral to Boreal latitudes and from bellow sea level to high mountain habitats including semi aquatic, swamps, rivers, savannas, forests, tundras and deserts.

Baby Elephant framed by his Mom

Today, elephants both the African and Asian species are some of the most critically endangered creatures on Earth. Just in Africa where they were very common South of the Sahara, its range and numbers have shrunk as human population, development and poaching have increased. To have an idea by the early 1980’s there were approximately 1.3 million African elephants in the wild. As Ivory became more valuable an indiscriminate killing of elephants occurred, and by the end of that decade, 80% of the African elephant population had been decimated.

Baby Elephant Picking up a Fight with our Truck

Conservation groups in partnership with several African and Asian countries are working hard to protect the elephants that are left in the wild and in captivity, just approximately 600,000 African animals and 40,000 Asian, but the situation is very complicated, not only there are a lot of human-elephant conflicts that need to be solved but the ivory trade which today is illegal in many African countries, is still alive and unfortunately doing very well, only last month 300 elephants were massacred in Cameroon.

I do hate to finish my stories with such a grim outcome, but it is a reality to which humanity needs to wake up, the systematic killing of these majestic, gentle animals and other not so gentle but still fascinating like rhinos, tigers and gorillas, is just plain inhuman and a crime that fortunately is beginning to be punished to the full extent of the law in some countries. Let’s hope that all other countries follow suit, and people begin to understand that the more we destroy our fellow animals, plants and habitats the more we destroy ourselves, and by the way, it is not cool to have pieces of animals decorating your house!

Some Interesting Facts About Elephants

baby elephant, masai mara, kenya
Help! I think my trunk is too flexible!

The elephant trunk or proboscis, used to be described by early naturalists as the “elephant’s hand”, of course it is not, it is more like a super nose and its dexterity in performing various functions is probably one of the reasons why we are so fascinated by these creatures. Guess what, there are approximately 40,000 muscles in the elephant’s trunk alone giving him an exceptional degree of flexibility and maneuverability.

The Matriarch Keeping an Eye on her Group

Over 99 percent of all terrestrial mammals have hair, but not elephants, they are completely bald. And the earflaps, well they are huge especially in the African variety, which actually has the largest earflaps of any animal in history. Do you wonder why? Elephants live in some of the hottest climates on earth and their bodies produce an enormous amount of heat. Although they have adjusted their thermostats to reduce the heat output of their cells, it is still not enough. Baldness helps them eliminate heat faster, but that is also not enough, hence the huge earflaps, which function as a cooling device. The elephant ears are loaded with blood vessels particularly where the skin is very thin, this allows for faster dissipation of heat helping to keep the animal cooler when temperatures seem impossibly hot.

Now I ask, isn’t nature absolutely fascinating?

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