Elephants mean different things to various cultures, ranging from being seen as simply a gorgeous animal that lives in your country to a revered god-like symbol to a token of good luck. Unfortunately they are also often idolized for their thick, leathery hides and gorgeous ivory tusks, which has led them to be listed as an endangered species.African elephants are the largest mammals walking the Earth today, growing up to 11-feet tall, between 19 and 24 feet long, and weighing usually around six tons. There are two types of African elephants, the Savanna (bush) elephant and the forest elephant. Savanna elephants are the larger of the two and have tusks that curve outward, while forest elephants are smaller, darker, and have straighter tusks that point downward. Asian elephants, on the other hand, are very different from African elephants. They are noticeably smaller and their ears don’t fan out at the bottom like an African elephant. And while all African elephants, male or female, have tusks, only some male Asian elephants do.
Elephants are social creatures, living in herds made up of mostly females and calves while the males opt for isolation, usually leaving the herd at around 13 years old. The calves live with their mothers for a large portion of their early lives and are cared for by many of the other females in their herd. The females have the longest gestation period of any animal, lasting 22 months from conception. Throughout those 22 months, other females help the laboring mothers up until birth, acting as midwives to ensure that the entire process goes smoothly. Calves weigh about 230 pounds when they’re born, and the females don’t usually have more than four babies.They’re also incredibly sensitive animals. They have been known to express grief and sometimes cry, like in this heartbreaking video of a baby elephant crying after being rejected by its mother; show compassion, such as having a “greeting ceremony” for elephants they haven’t seen in awhile where they’ll “hug” by intertwining their trunks; and they also mourn the loss of fellow herd members. It’s true what they say—elephants have excellent memories, which is apparent in their varying emotional responses. These large creatures are also very resourceful. Although they’re the only mammal that can’t jump, they’re fantastic swimmers and can move swiftly and quietly, despite their enormity, due to soft pads protecting the bottoms of their feet. Their bodies have natural cooling methods as well, and they can sustain hot temperatures due to the many blood vessels coursing through their ears. On top of all this, elephants also use their tusks for many things, such as digging for water, finding food, defense, and lifting items. Similar to how humans are often left-or right-handed, elephants prefer using one tusk over the other.
Aside from utilizing their physical features in everyday life, both on a conscious and subconscious level, they’re also quite connected to their environment through the use of their senses. Their eyesight isn’t very strong, but their other senses make up for that. They have hearing capabilities that go far beyond a human’s limitations, opening them up to spatial experiences that we can’t quite begin to process. And they don’t just hear from their ears—elephants are able to pick up on sub-sonic sounds through their feet and can be found “listening” by pressing their trunks to the ground and positioning their feet in a certain way. Their trunks are also very fascinating and useful beyond its physical potentiality. Made up of more than 40,000 muscles, trunks can help elephants smell better, especially when waved from side to side, and can also help the creatures sense the size, shape, and temperature of an object.Although elephants don’t have any natural predators (aside from lions that sometimes prey on the weak or young), humans have led this amazing creature to become endangered. Asian elephants have been listed as endangered since 1975 and African elephants since 1989. Much of their population decline comes from poaching to support illegal ivory trading. Ivory trading was made illegal in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but there is still an unregulated market demanding it. Additionally, loss of habitat is also negatively affecting elephant populations. As humans expand further into their environments and practices like commercial logging continue, elephants end up on the losing side of the battle for more space. Maintaining the areas that we visit and leaving the wildlife alone are the best ways we can help elephants and many other endangered species continue to thrive. Often we’ll see others partaking in experiences with these amazing creatures, such as viewing them in contained settings or riding on them—this is not the capacity that they were meant for, however, and we should do our best to let them live naturally. Wildlife viewing is an enjoyable part of any outdoor experience, and you can partake in it by using our Pocket Ranger® mobile apps to explore parks that have diverse wildlife populations. And remember: The best approach when interacting with wildlife is to look and not touch.