1. Strange relations
The elephant’s closest living relative is the dassie. This might sound odd, but recent discoveries have shown that the elephant’s oldest ancestor was about the size of a rabbit. Other family members include the extinct woolly mammoth, who was still living as recently as when the pyramids were built (about 3,500 years ago). Elephants can be divided into two species: the African elephant and the Asian elephant. Asian elephants are smaller and have been used for domestic purposes for thousands of years, from warfare to moving big objects like felled trees.
2. Tightly knit
Herds are made up of females and are in fact a family of mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters and cousins. The eldest will usually lead the group as the matriarch. Only death or capture can separate females from their herds, as the bond among herd mates runs very deep. Males leave their herds when they are around 14 years old to form temporary ‘bachelor’ herds until they are mature enough to live on their own.
3. Just like us
Elephants have a more developed hippocampus than any other animal. This is the region of the brain responsible for emotion. They are also highly developed socially, form very close bonds with their family and herd, and are very intelligent. They experience empathy and are altruistic, willingly helping another animal (or even human) when they are hurt – even if they are not related, or even if the animal is not of the same species. They will comfort a distressed friend by caressing them with their trunks. They also have death rituals during which they mourn the death of a companion, staying with the body for days and ‘burying’ it with leaves, branches and dirt. There have even been instances where elephants have attempted to cover sleeping humans with branches, thinking they are dead. When elephants find the bones of deceased elephants, they will touch and caress them with their trunks. They can also shed tears, although it has not been proven to be related to emotions. They greet each other or show affection by wrapping their trunks together, like a hug. Unfortunately, despite their emotional intelligence and similarities to us, elephants are under severe threat from humans because of their ivory tusks. The African elephant is currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and the Asian elephant as Endangered.
4. What a big nose you have
The trunk (a fusion of the upper lip and nose) is very sensitive and versatile. It is very good at its job – elephants have a better sense of smell than Bloodhounds. They also use their trunks to pick up food, as well as to drink, sucking up water and squirting it into their mouths. Trunks serve as built-in snorkels, so when elephants swim they can completely submerge, with only their trunks sticking out in order to breathe. Trunks are also used to communicate through touch or trumpet calls. And the trunk’s uses still don’t end there – some Asian elephants can even paint with them.
5. Wild encounters
During the mating season, bulls enter a phase called musth. These bulls are very aggressive when encountered in the wild. Signs that an elephant is aggressive include facing you head-on, spreading his ears so he looks bigger, and moving his head up and down. When an elephant feels threatened enough he will bluff charge, or even make contact. This usually results in overturned cars – situations which can easily be avoided by understanding these animals’ body language. Similarly, female herds are very protective of calves, and will go to incredible lengths to protect them. It’s best not to get between a mother and her calf.
6. I, elephant
Elephants are part of the tiny group of very intelligent animals who show self-awareness (others include dolphins and the great apes). When most animals see themselves in the mirror, like our dogs or cats at home, they think they are looking at another dog or cat. When an elephant sees himself in the mirror, he recognises himself.
7. Little ones
The elephant’s gestation period is 22 months – the longest pregnancy of all animals. Baby elephants, called calves, are already about 1m tall and weigh 100kg when they are born. There is usually only one baby, but sometimes twins occur. Calves are able to stand and walk soon after birth, though they need support from their mothers and keep very close to them. They aren’t that good with controlling their trunks yet though, and often step on them, but by about a month old they can start picking up objects. They will also suck their trunks like human babies suck their thumbs. The herd is very protective of the young, and make a circle with the calves in the middle when they sense danger.
Elephants have different vocalisations, each used for a specific purpose. Over long distances, they use low-frequency rumblings, which can’t be heard by humans. They can use this means of communication to find separated herd members, as it can reach as far as 10km. They ‘listen’ to the rumblings of other elephants through their feet, as the sounds travel through the ground.
9. Grandpa Lin
These majestic mammals can live for up to 70 years. The oldest recorded age is 86 – a record set by an Asian elephant called Lin Wang. Before retiring to a zoo in 1954, he served in WWII, carrying supplies through the jungle, and was even taken prisoner by the Chinese in 1943.
As the largest land mammal, a full-grown African elephant can reach a size of 4m at the shoulder and a massive 6,350kg. To maintain their big physiques they eat for most of the day, consuming about 130kg of food. Their tusks (which are really incisor teeth) keep growing throughout their lives. Shawu, an elephant bull from the Kruger National Park, had the biggest tusks ever recorded in the park – over 3m long and 50kg each. Elephants prefer one of their tusks over the other just like we prefer our left or right hand. They also have very big ears, which they use to regulate their body temperature.