Indian Elephants: Employed But Still Endangered

Indian ElephantPhoto: utpal.

Introducing the Indian Elephant

The Indian elephant – also known as the Asian elephant, Asiatic elephant, or Elephas maximus indicus – is the largest mammal native to the Indian subcontinent. The biggest are about 6.4 metres long, perhaps 3 metres from ground to shoulder and another 50 cm taller at the head. They may tip the scales – or perhaps crush them – at just under 5,000kg. Small adults weigh perhaps half that; a calf’s birth weight may be 50 to 150kg. Males are typically larger than females.

The skin may be brown or grey, but with some pink areas mainly on the head. The elephant is perhaps best known for its prehensile trunk – a very long nose and upper lip with an amazing variety of uses. The thick legs rest on pads to absorb the animal’s weight.

Indian ElephantPhoto: *jude*

Elephant dentistry is remarkable. A few very large teeth develop, but the elephant wears down the front ones. These are replaced from the rear, until no more remain. At this point – only reached by a quite aged elephant – it will be unable to eat properly, and so it will starve. Male Indian elephants develop tusks by growing a pair of incisors by about 17cm per year.

Related female elephants form herds, often consisting of about twenty, including adults and dependent children. Males leave at about age 14, and may be solitary, travel with other males for short times, or join a matriarch’s herd when he has an opportunity to breed. Only a dominant male is “permitted” to breed, so size and aggressiveness are important traits.

Elephants can communicate over long distances by calling at very low frequencies – often below the lowest notes humans can hear. This seems to be how they can co-ordinate arriving at a destination, such as a water source.

Elephants are vegetarians. They eat grass, leaves, bark, fruits and vegetables. If the grass is short, an elephant will scrape together a pile using its feet, then pick up the bale. Bark is shredded from a branch in the same way that people eat corn on the cob. Symbiotic bacteria in an elephant’s intestines help it to digest its daily diet of 150kg of vegetation – washed down with over 100 litres of water.

The trunk has many uses: it sniffs out food sources, collects grass, holds foods, serves as a “nose” for breathing, tosses dust or sprays water for skin care, acts as a hose for drinking and helps in trumpeting.

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