Elephants - largest land mammals alive

All living elephants belong to the Elephantidae, a family of the once species-rich order of Proboscidea. Only three species in two genera survive today, the African Forest Elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), the African Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africanus), and the Asiatic Elephant (Elephas maximus). Asian elephants are usually further subdivided into three or four subspecies, E. m. maximus (Sri Lankan Elephant), E. m. indicus (Indian Elephant), E. m. borneensis (Bornean Elephant, sometimes included in one of the other three subspecies), and E. m. sumatranus (Sumatran Elephant).

The most distinctive feature of the elephant is their impressive elongated combination of the nose and upper lip - the trunk. An elephant´s trunk is both strong and sensitive, allowing for picking up tiny leaves or carrying entire trees around. Among other things, elephants use their trunk when foraging, drinking and bathing, during social contacts, for "handling" simple tools, for communication via sounds or, like us, as a highly sensitive olfactory organ.

Elephants are huge animals, they can weigh more than five tons (the record is 11 tons!) with a shoulder height of more than three meters. It is therefore not surprising that they require enormous quantities of food and water. A five ton "tusker" will take in about 200 kg of fresh fodder or 4% of its body weight, per day. Elephants can live in a variety of habitats from rainforest to semi-deserts but they are highly dependent on water. They have to take in tens of litres of water every day and will walk many miles in search for water if necessary.  

The elephant’s gestation period is 18 – 22 months, the longest of all land mammals. At birth, an elephant calf will weigh on average 120 kg and will usually stand up and be able to walk within hours after the birth in order to follow its mother. After 10-15 years elephants reach sexual maturity, although it may take another decade before bulls are competitive enough to actually mate with a female. Elephants live in highly complex societies and form strong family bonds. The typical family unit consists of closely related females with their offspring and is usually led by the oldest and thus most experienced female. Male elephants leave their family after reaching maturity and spend most of their time alone or in small male groups. However, male elephants often follow elephant groups closely while females are in oestrus.

Elephants were once widespread and numerous throughout Africa and Asia. Today their habitat is restricted to isolated sanctuaries and few remaining wilderness areas. The home-range of many elephant populations often overlaps with human territory, which frequently leads to severe conflicts. Elephants raid crops, destroy human property and sometimes kill or injure people, causing people to shoot, trap, electrocute, poison or otherwise remove the elephants from their habitat. There are only few stable or growing populations (most of them in Southern Africa). The majority of the remaining elephant populations are suffering from habitat loss and persecution by people. The perspective for most elephant populations, especially for those living in Asia, is grim.

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