5. Physical Description
The largest terrestrial animals of Asia, and the second largest elephant species in the world, Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) differ from their African counterparts in terms of their smaller size and shorter ears. Their heights at their shoulders range between 6.6 and 9.8 feet (2 to 3 meters) and their weights lie between 2.25 and 5.5 tons (2,041 to 4,990 kilograms). These elephants are dark gray to brown in color and have pinkish patches on their ears, trunks, and some other areas of their bodies. The most interesting part of these elephants’ physical features are their highly functional and agile trunks, which are actually an extension of the nose and upper lip, ending in nostrils at the bottom of the trunk. The trunk can be used for multiple purposes like breathing, smelling, sucking in water, producing their characteristic "trumpeting" sounds, as well as for grabbing and picking up objects. There are fingerlike structures at the ends of these trunks, which are primarily used to hold onto objects with a firm grip. The Asian elephant possesses one such fingerlike projection at the end of its trunk, while African elephants' trunks have a pair of them. The trunk alone has about 100,000 individual muscles, accounting for the efficiency and work capacity of this unique appendage. Depending on the subspecies, male elephants usually possess tusks, which are used to dig up the ground, debark trees, or as a weapon of defense. Some populations, like the Sri Lankan elephants, have only 5% of their males being "tuskers", as compared to 90% in nearby states in southern India. Such statistics exhibit a pattern that is believed to correspond to the prevalence of hunting in their respective areas, with tusks being especially sought after in Sri Lanka.
Asian elephants can be classified as "mega-herbivores", as they are completely dependent on herbivory and consume up to 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of vegetation each day. Consumption of such large volumes of food is crucial to the survival of these elephants. The foraging techniques of these pachyderms involves both grazing and browsing activities, and their diet consists of grasses, barks, roots, stems, and the leaves of trees, as well as crops growing on human-cultivated lands, such as bananas and sugarcane. Often, the act of raiding farmers’ crops by elephant herds results in serious human-animal conflicts, which can even end in the death or injury to either the elephants or humans involved. The elephants also require large intakes of water on a regular basis, the volume of which ranges between 21 and 53 gallons (80-200 liters) of water daily.
3. Habitat and Range
Today, the Asian elephant has been categorized as ‘Endangered’ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. With about 100,000 of these gentle giants existing at the beginning of the 20th Century, their numbers have rapidly dwindled to lower than 50% of that figure over the past few decades. Today, these elephants, which used to live across large parts of Asia, occupy only 15% of their original ranges. Countries of the Indian subcontinent, including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and parts of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand, are considered to have small to large Asian elephant populations. India has the most widespread habitat for the elephants, while Sri Lanka has much smaller populations that are greatly restricted to fragmented living areas. Sumatran Asian elephants have lost 70% of their original habitats as well. The tropical and subtropical forests in these countries serve as ideal habitats for these mega-herbivores. Today, Asian elephant populations are threatened by exploitative human activities, such as the establishment of developmental projects in forested lands, deforestation, the spread of human habitation into elephant territories, habitat fragmentation, and the death of elephants due to human-animal conflicts. Cases of poaching of Asian elephants are lower than that of their African counterparts, but yet some elephants are still killed for their tusks, meat, and skin. Wild elephants are also captured for captive breeding to boost tourism industries in countries like Thailand, which further depletes the wild populations of this species.
The Asian elephants have a complex, hierarchical social structure, living in large groups exhibiting matriarchy. The males leave their families between the age of 12 and 15 years old, and then wander solitarily or otherwise form small, temporary groups comprised by a few bull elephants. Such groups are led in the front and the rear by the strongest males and the remaining members act to stabilize the group. The hierarchical roles of these members transform every time a new male enters or when one leaves the group. The bull elephant does not have preference for a single family unit, but instead wanders in search of mates between different family units. This increases their chances of mating, and potentially allows the elephant to mate with about 30 females within a given year. This leads to the production of more offspring in a single mating season than if they had stayed with a single family unit. The family units are comprised by 3 to 25 members, and has a stable core group led by the oldest and most experienced female, called the matriarch. She is accompanied by her adult daughters and their collective offspring. The females are responsible for bringing up their offspring, and teaching them social, foraging, and defensive skills. The chances of offspring survival increases when there are larger numbers of adult females in the group. The family units might also bond with related or non-related elephant groups, referred to as "kin" or "bond" groups. Elephants are also reported to mourn for their dead companions by pausing for a while when they come across the dead body of a deceased elephant, gently caressing the body with their trunks, and sometimes even carrying a piece of tusk or bone with them as fond memory of their dead companions.
Elephants also love to bathe and to wallow in the mud. They will coat their bodies with mud and dust, and then rub themselves against hard surfaces in order to get rid of pathogens that have stuck to their bodies. Elephants sleep for about four hours a day and, during deep sleep, they will lie on their sides and breathe deeply, and sometimes even snore. These giant pachyderms (thick-skinned mammals) are "crepuscular" in nature, and thus are primarily most active at dawn and dusk.
The elephant mating ritual is a fascinating spectacle to behold. Usually older males, about 40 to 50 years of age, are the most preferred males for mating. Females are ready to begin mating at the age of about 14 years. Physical aggression is hardly involved when males compete with each other for the attention of the female. It is believed the younger ones back out due to respect and admiration for the older, more experienced males. The courtship is short lived, and involves the male running in pursuit of the playful female, followed by body rubbing and trunk wrapping. Elephants have an extremely long gestation period of 22 months, and this is one of the factors responsible for the slow growth rate of the elephant population. Baby elephants are born blind and helpless, and are at first looked after by all the other females in the herd. This is in order to allow the mother sufficient time to feed, so that she can produce enough milk for feeding her newborn baby.