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Details of elephant biology were until recently relatively few. Recent research has revealed fascinating information, proving the uniqueness of this creature. Read on to enhance your appreciation of the biggest living land animal.

They weigh up to six tons and may live 60 years or more. The African bush elephant, (Loxodonta africana, Tembo or Ndovu) is larger than its Indian cousin, and larger than the forest or pygmy elephant (L. pumilio), now considered by some experts to be a separate species.

The elephant is truly immense. An average bull is ten and half feet (3.2 m) tall and weighs a little over six tons (6.1 tonnes). The biggest elephant on record, shot in Angola in 1974, measured thirteen feet (4 m) at the shoulder, thirty-five feet (10.7 m) from trunk to tail and had a forefoot just under six feet round (2 m). It weighed about thirteen and a half tons (13.7 metric tonnes).

The elephant seems a lumbering creature especially gently striding around at four or five miles per hour but a charging elephant can run up to 25 mph (40 kph), and in its natural habitat is virtually unstoppable.

Cows are a bit smaller than bulls. After a female reaches maturity at about ten to twelve years old she will give birth every three to five years. The young are borne for an very long two years. December is usually the favorite month for giving birth although young may be born any time of year. Adults are highly affectionate and protective of the calves. Female elephants with young can be extremely treacherous, and may attack without warning.

Cows have smaller tusks than the bull. The size of tusks varies widely but among males than can grow huge, seeming almost to drag on the ground with heir weight. The longest tusks measured eleven and a half feet long, while the heaviest (a different pair) weigh 465 pounds (211 kg). Both tusks are in New York and London museums. Although formidable weapons, the tusks are rarely used for defense but seem mainly employed to dig for water and salt.

For the size of its head, the elephant has a small brain, although it is still huge and the elephant is highly intelligent. The skull is massive to act as an attachment for the tusks and huge jaw and neck muscles.

The huge ears of the elephant are moved by muscles also attached to the skull. Flapping the ears cools the blood which runs through a network of arteries. This works much like a car's radiator—cool air moving over the skin removes heat from the blood, which is then circulated throughout the body. Despite its size, the skull is very light because of large air spaces built into the bone. This is why a shot into the head will often have no apparent effect.

If it survives poachers, its only natural enemy, an elephant will live as long as most humans, sixty or seventy years. Old elephants usually die of starvation because their teeth wear away.

Very old animals venture into swamps where they can eat soft lush vegetation without having to chew it. When they die, they sink in the soft mud which may explain why so few elephant skeletons are found. Perhaps one such swamp, dried out over time, gave rise to legends of the elephants graveyard.

Elephants feed on a large variety of vegetable matter: fruits, leaves, tree bark, grass, small branches and roots. It is particularly fond of the baobab tree seed pods. When they are stripped of bark or uprooted, whole trees fall victim to the elephants insatiable appetite.

In fact, the elephant creates more environmental change than any other animal (except for humans). Part of the reason is that elephants associate in large family groups which have animals of all sizes so little vegetation is spared.

However, the changes to the habitat caused by herds are crucial to the survival of many small creatures, especially birds and insects. When elephants dig with their tusks in dry ground for water, they make it available to other species. They provide passage for other lesser animals when they open up dense bush and thickets. Their dung is breeding ground for myriads of bugs which are on the menu of many birds.

If elephants remain in one area for long they may cause permanent changes in the landscape. They can turn woodland into open grassland. Sets of tree and shrub species will replace another followed by consequent changes in species of herbivorous creatures and attendant carnivores.

Dramatic changes caused by the elephant bring it into head-on conflict with man. Nomadic peoples coexist easily with it but modern ranching, agriculture and forestry are readily disrupted by elephants.

Trampled crops, smashed fences and huts, trees uprooted and general mayhem are the usual results when a herd of elephants detour through a village, perhaps to sample some juicy sugar-cane. Villagers obviously resent such heavy-footed intrusions and attempt to drive away the huge beasts, making loud noises, yelling and jumping around.

A few may even take a pot-shot. In January 1994 in Kenya three elephants were killed by Masai tribesmen when the animals strayed from the Mara game reserve onto farmland. Reports like this are becoming more common as humans encroach further toward elephant territory.

Angry villagers threaten elephants much less than poachers. Despite international bans on the ivory trade, poaching remains a serious problem. Many factors contribute. The poor see an easy, quick income. Policing huge reserves is difficult, expensive and dangerous. Modern weapons vastly increase kill rates. Many poachers often with military training and usually heavily armed, cross unguarded borders into reserves where elephants are plentiful. Whether or not the tusks are sizeable, dozens of animals at a time are mowed down with automatic weapons, such as the AK-47 or Uzi. Even anti-tank weapons are used to fell the creatures from a safe distance.

In view of the massacre, Kenya's response to poachers has been a shoot-on-sight policy, introduced by Richard Leakey, then head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. This harsh approach has been criticized by some but it seems just, given the indiscriminate slaughter by poachers.

In other ways, Kenya has set the standard for elephant conservation, and moved decisively against poachers. Richard Leakey, who resigned as KWS head in January 1994, organized an international publicity campaign against ivory. Ten million dollars worth of recovered poached tusks were publicly burnt in a huge bonfire. The message is loud and clear: elephants are more valuable than tusks. People listened and even legal ivory prices plummeted. Ivory is now at so low a price that poaching does not pay except to the most desperate. Leakey was later injured in a plane accident, said to be sabotage, no doubt revenge for his radical policies.

With protection Kenyan elephant populations should increase in eastern Africa. Ultimately, demands on land are a greater threat than poaching. Elephant territory underwent its severest recorded decline between 1970 and 1980, exactly the time when human population rose in its fastest increase ever. Today, elephants are found on 20% of Kenya's land area, down from 71% in 1950 and 90% in 1925.

The elephant is widely distributed through much of Eastern and Central Africa, but increasingly under pressure from habitat loss and of course poaching. The present population totals about 500,000 elephants, down from at least ten times that number in the middle of the 20th century.


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