The Risks    Conservation

The Life of Wild Elephants

Elephants are the largest land mammals living on the Earth today. They have no natural predators—other than man—and can live between 50 and 70 years. They need a large range of area in which to live, forage, travel, breed, and raise families, and the climates of Africa and Asia are perfect for these activities. Elephants naturally live in herds with clearly established and linear social orders. Males and females live distinctly different lives; females live out their existences in tightly knit groups with other females—usually mothers, daughter, aunts, and sisters—led by the matriarch, the eldest female. While female elephants live socially active lives, interacting with males on the borders of their groups, with females from other herds, as well as female members of other herds and populations they meet.

To contrast this starkly, males live independent, solitary lives. As they grow, they spend more and more time on the outskirts of the herd, eventually wandering away from the group first for hours, then days, then weeks at a time. When he nears the age of fourteen, he departs from the herd for good, and sets out to begin his own life. While males encounter other males and form loose bachelor herds, their interaction is usually aggressive but results in few injuries, battling over breeding rights for choice females; it is the older males who usually win these encounters, and the younger males must continue to wait.

Elephants are very communicative. They have a wide range of communication styles and sounds; the call they are famous for is the trumpet call, which they make by blowing air through their nostrils. Other sounds include growls made when meeting, roars made when confronting another animal, and communicate over long distances with infrasound. Infrasound is a sub-sonic rumbling, which can travel longer distances than higher frequencies; elephants use this form of communication largely when they are navigating.

Diets are herbivores—they only eat plant matter—and spend an average of 16 hours a day searching for food. Traditional elephant diets are 50% grasses, and the remainder is leaves, bamboo, twigs, bark, roots, as well as small amounts of fruits, seeds, and nuts. An adult elephant can eat between 300 and 600 pounds of food each day, and more than half of it leaves the elephant’s body undigested.

Many other species depend on elephants. One example is that of the commensal relationship between the elephant and the termite. Termites need the elephant for both housing and food; termites eat elephant faeces and build their mounds underneath piles of elephant faeces. By pulling down and breaking tree branches during foraging, elephants clear areas for new trees and other forms of vegetation to grow, helping to continue the life cycle. They also serve as road builders, clearing paths through difficult terrain and making way for other animals that would otherwise be unable to travel to the same locale.

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