The Asian elephant is the largest surviving land mammal in Asia. Although significantly smaller than its African cousin, it is still an awesome beast. An adult bull can weigh over five tonnes. It is also distinguished by its smaller, more rounded ears. Female Asian elephants usually lack tusks, which has the added benefit of making them less vulnerable to ivory poachers.
Pritish Kumar Halder brief illustration of the Asian elephant. Read full article below:
Asian elephants are highly intelligent animals characterised by strong family bonds, sophisticated forms of communication and complex behaviour, including tool use and the ability to feel grief and compassion. Their versatile trunks are equally capable of brute force (pushing over a tree in order to reach leaves on the inaccessible upper branches, for example) or performing a delicate task such as picking up a peanut.
They are adapted to a wide variety of habitats including dense tropical evergreen forest, dry and wet deciduous forests, scrubland and grasslands. The species has disappeared from much of its former range and is now largely confined to isolated populations across 13 countries in South and Southeast Asia, scattered across a total area of roughly half a million square kilometres.
Fewer than 50,000 wild Asian elephants are estimated to survive today, compared to around half a million of their African cousins.
Asian elephants are the continent’s largest terrestrial mammals. They can reach 6.4m in length and 3m at the shoulder, and weigh as much as 5 tonnes.
They are smaller than African elephants and have proportionally smaller ears. Which they keep in constant motion in order to cool themselves. They also have a single ‘finger’ on the upper lip of their trunks as opposed to African elephants, which have a second one on the lower tip.
Their skin ranges from dark grey to brown, with patches of pink on the forehead, the ears, the base of the trunk and the chest.
A significant number of male Asian elephants are tuskless. The percentage of males with ivory varies from just 5% in Sri Lanka to aound 90% in southern India – possibly reflecting the intensity of past ivory hunting.
There are three subspecies of Asian elephant – the Indian, Sumatran and Sri Lankan. The Indian has the widest range and accounts for the majority of the remaining elephants on the continent. Although the Sri Lankan is physically the largest of the subspecies, and also the darkest in colour. The Sumatran is the smallest.
However, some studies suggest that Borneo pygmy elephants could be a separate subspecies. If so, they would be the smallest. They are also more rotund and have babyish faces, larger ears, and longer tails that almost reach the ground. They are appear to be less aggressive than other Asian elephants.
Female elephants are more social than males. They form herds of related females that are led by the oldest female, the ‘matriarch’. Males usually live alone but sometimes form small groups with other males.
When habitat conditions are favourable, female elephants may give birth to a calf every 2.5-4 years. Each calf weighs between 50-150kg.
After several months, the calf begins to eat grass and foliage. However, it stays under the supervision of its mother for several years, starting to make its first independent moves when it is around 4 years old.
Both males and females may become sexually mature as early as 9, but males do not usually start sexual activity until they are 14 or 15. And even then they are not capable of the social dominance that is usually necessary for successful reproductive activity, especially as most elephants only reach their full size at about 17 years of age.
Elephants need to eat an average of 150 kg per day to survive. They can spend more than two thirds of each day feeding on grasses. But they also devour large amounts of bark, roots, leaves and stems. Cultivated crops such as bananas, rice and sugarcane are also favoured foods – sometimes bringing them into conflict with humans.
They need to drink at least once a day so they are always close to a source of fresh water.
Reproduction and Development
Wild males and females reach sexual maturity between 8 and 13 years of age. Females usually have their first birth in their mid-teens. Behavioral studies tell us that males are unlikely to father a calf until they are in their 30s, when they are best able to compete with older, larger males. By about the age of 30, most healthy males begin to experience a regular period of heightened sexual and aggressive activity called musth.
Musth is a massive rush of testosterone that makes males aggressive and competitive. It also makes them especially attractive to females in estrus. During musth, a green fluid drips from the penis and is secreted from the elephant’s temporal glands. In human care, both male and female elephants mature earlier than in the wild. The onset of musth in zoo elephants has come as early as 8 years of age. This phenomenon is thought to be due to consistent quality nutrition and environmental conditions and the lack of suppression or competition by older animals.
Females come into estrus about every 115 days. Gestation is between 21.5 and 22 months, the longest gestation period for any animal. Usually one calf (occasionally two) is born and weighs between 150 and 350 pounds (68 to 158 kilograms). There is an average birth interval of three to eight years, depending on environmental conditions.
Calves stand and nurse soon after birth. By 6 months, calves begin feeding on vegetation. They also eat their mother’s dung for several years, which contains nutrients as well as the symbiotic bacteria that aid in the digestion of cellulose. Weaning is a gradual process that may continue until the mother delivers another calf. Males leave their natal herd at sexual maturity, but females remain within the family unit throughout their lives.
Longevity of elephants is not well understood, and most of the available information comes from African elephants. Recent data suggests that African elephants rarely live to the age of 50. Evidence suggests that Asian elephants typically live into their mid-50s, but there is not enough consistent data available on wild Asian elephants to accurately estimate their lifespan. Median life expectancy for female Asian elephants is 47 years old.