Large grazing mammal with thick, grey wrinkled skin, large ears, a long flexible trunk, and huge curving tusks. There are fingerlike projections at the end of the trunk used for grasping food and carrying it to the mouth. The trunk is also used for carrying water to the mouth. The elephant is herbivorous and, because of its huge size, much of its time must be spent feeding on leaves, shoots, bamboo, reeds, grasses, and fruits, and, where possible, cultivated crops such as maize and bananas. Elephants are the largest living land animal and usually live in herds containing between 20 and 40 females (cows), led by a mature, experienced cow. Most male (bull) elephants live alone or in small groups; young bulls remain with the herd until they reach sexual maturity. Elephants have the longest gestation period of any animal (18-23 months between conception and birth) and usually produce one calf , which takes 10-15 years to reach maturity. Their tusks, which are initially tipped with enamel but later consist entirely of ivory, continue growing throughout life. They are preceded by milk tusks, which are shed at an early age. Elephants can live up to 60 years in the wild, but those in captivity have been known to reach over 65.
Elephants belong to the phylum Chordata, class Mammalia (mammals), order Proboscidea, family Elephantidae. There are two species, the African elephant(Loxodonta africana), and the Indian or Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). The African elephant is much the larger of the two species, growing to heights of 4 m/13 ft and weighing up to 8 tonnes compared with the 2.7 m/9 ft and 4 tonnes of the Indian elephant.
Elephants are slaughtered for ivory, and this, coupled with the fact that they reproduce slowly and do not breed readily in captivity, is leading to their extinction. In Africa, overhunting caused numbers to decline rapidly during the 1980s and the elephant population of East Africa is threatened with extinction. They were placed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list of most endangered species 1989-97, and this combined with a world ban on trade in ivory in 1990, resulted in an apparent drop in poaching. In 1997, however, at the 10th CITES convention, the elephant was downgraded to CITES Appendix II (vulnerable) and the ban on ivory exportation was lifted. The Asian elephant was also placed on the CITES endangered list.
The African elephant has larger ears and longer tusks than its Asian relative (many Asian elephants, particularly the females, are tuskless). The African elephant has a sloping forehead and a hollow back, whereas the Asian elephant has two domes on its forehead just above its ears, and an arched back. The trunk of the African elephant is ridged with two finger-like projections; the Asian species has a smooth trunk with one finger. The African species has four nails on its front foot and three on its hind (back) foot, whereas the Asian elephant has five on its front foot and four on its hind. African elephants live only in Africa, south of the Sahara desert. The Indian or Asian elephant can be found in parts of India and Southeast Asia. Young Asian elephants are hairy, and in this respect somewhat resemble the extinct mammoth genus; the adults have smooth, nearly naked skin. The African species is of a fiercer disposition and can move rapidly over rough ground.
Elephants are able to detect seismic vibrations over distances as great as 50 km/31 mi, using sensitive tissue in their feet and trunk tips. This enables herds to move away from danger, or towards rain during periods of drought.
In 2005 it was discovered that elephants can mimic sounds. Researchers found that African elephants who had lived for many years in a zoo with Asian elephants could mimic the natural sounds of Asian elephants. Also, an African elephant who had been raised in Kenya near a road was able to mimic the sound of a truck. Elephants are the only land animals other than primates with the ability to copy sounds.
There were 1.3 million African elephants in 1981; fewer than 700,000 in 1988; 600,000 in 1990; and fewer than 580,000 in 1997. It was estimated in 1997 that in Sri Lanka alone elephants might be extinct within ten years. The country's government maintained that there were 4,000 animals left, whereas the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka claimed there were only 2,500. By the end of 2000 it was estimated that there were fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants in the wild. There are about 10,000 working elephants in Asia, most of which are caught from the wild and ‘tamed’ by starvation and brutality. In March 2000 elephant poaching had increased in 11 African countries and the Born Free Foundation estimated that 9,000 elephants were killed annually.
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