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Critters » Elephants


Elephant Species
There are two species of elephant alive today; the African elephant is the largest of all land animals and the Asian elephant is its slightly smaller cousin.

What's the difference between African and Asian elephants?

(Loxodonta africana)
(Elephas maximus)
Height (at shoulder, males)10 feet (3 m)9 to 10 feet (2.7 m to 3 m)
Weight (males)12,000 lbs (5,443 kg)8,000 lbs (3,629 kg)
Weight (females)8,000 lbs (3,629 kg)6,000 lbs (2,722 kg)
Foreheadsmoothtwo humps
Trunk two "finger" tipone "finger" tip
Tusks long - both male and femalesmaller (females have almost none)
Backslight diparched

African Elephants (Loxodonta africana)
Wild African Elephants can still be found throughout much of Africa. Those living south of the Sahara mostly dwell in bush habitat, while those inhabiting Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast, and other central and western African nations are forest dwellers. Although African elephants numbered approximately 1.5 million in 1978, today there are only about 600,000 African elephants remaining in the wild.

While habitat destruction and fragmentation threaten the African elephant's future, the greatest immediate threat to their survival is poaching, or illegal killing, to supply the lucrative ivory market.

Several African countries have implemented elephant conservation programs, many of which include setting aside preserve areas and hiring wildlife rangers to protect elephants from poachers. However, limited resources and the danger of well-armed poachers, as well as the political instability of many African countries, makes it very challenging to implement effective, long-term elephant conservation programs in Africa.

Asian elephant, (Elephas Maximus)
The Asian elephant survives in herds in the forests and jungles of India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, and southeast Asia. Today, there are between 29,000 and 40,000 Asian elephants remaining in the wild.


Physical Adaptations
The ancestors of the modern elephant include the woolly mammoth and mastodon. The physical adaptations of these animals reflect the colder environments they inhabited. The ancestors' larger body size and thicker hair helped them to reduce heat loss. (The larger the body, the lower the ratio between surface area to volume -- so larger animals lose less heat per volume than smaller animals).

The word "elephant" comes from the Greek word Elephas, meaning ivory, in reference to the animal's prominent tusks, which are actually elongated incisor teeth. Except for tusks, elephants have only four molar teeth. These teeth are replaced as they are worn away, up to six times throughout an elephant's life. The tusks grow throughout the elephant's life. The largest on record weighed over 230 lbs (106 kg).

The elephant's trunk is another important adaptation for survival in its niche. Elephants use their trunk for drinking, bathing, smelling, breathing, feeling, and grasping food. At the end of the trunk is a sensitive "finger" for grasping things as small as a berry or as large as a branch. African elephants have two fingers while the Asian has only one. They also use their trunk as a snorkel when crossing deep rivers.

To help protect themselves from the heat, elephants have large ears, with prominent veins, that they can flap to cool their blood. They must stay near water, not only for drinking, but also for bathing and cooling. In addition to mud baths, elephants also take dust baths to try to keep cool and deter insect attacks.

Elephants are herbivores, or plant-eaters. They feed on grasses, fruits, leaves, branches, bark, and twigs. Due to their large size and because as much as 60 percent of what they eat passes through their body without being digested, elephants spend about 16 hours a day foraging for nearly 350 pounds of food. In addition, they drink about 18 gallons of water daily.

Social Behavior
Elephants are very social animals. They live in small herds composed of a group of females, or cows, and their young (calves), which are led by an older, experienced cow called the matriarch. The herd works together to take care of the calves and to watch for danger. These strong social bonds often extend to members of the herd that are sick or dying. Elephants have been observed covering the body of a dead herd member with twigs and leaves and staying at the grave site for hours.

Some males, or bulls, form bachelor herds, joining the females only to mate, while other bulls are loners.

Elephants live as long as 60 years.

Elephants do not mate until they are about 15 years old, and usually give birth every 4 years. After 22 months of pregnancy, a single calf is born weighing about 250 pounds and standing almost 3 feet tall. While the calf will begin eating vegetation within a few months, it continues to nurse on its mother's milk until it is at least 2 years old.

Conservation Efforts
Under the Endangered Species Act, the African elephant is listed as a threatened species and the Asian elephant is listed as an endangered species. "Endangered" means a species is considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and "threatened" means a species is considered in danger of becoming endangered. This protection prohibits elephant parts and products from being imported into the United States except under certain conditions.

Elephants are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement among more than 120 nations to eliminate illegal trade in animals and plants and their parts and associated products.

The African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988 prohibits the import of raw or worked ivory into the U.S., with certain exceptions. It also set up a grant program to fund elephant conservation efforts.

In June 1989, the U.S. government imposed a ban on commercial importation of African elephant ivory into the country. This led to a commercial ivory trade ban being adopted by all CITES member nations later in 1989.

Note: Some information has been excerpted from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) with permission.

Green Fact:
Humpback whales swim the waters of every ocean on the globe, and regularly follow regular migration routes -- spending summers in colder waters for feeding and winters in warmer waters for breeding.
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