August 12 is World Elephant Day – a day to celebrate one of the world’s most beloved animals and draw attention to the challenges they face. There are two extremely important facts about elephants that you won’t find in our story below: Populations have declined by 62% over the past decade, with 24,000 African elephants poached last year.
We have written about the importance of elephant conservation for years, from the story of how an elephant inspired GGT in 2000 to our fundraiser for Thailand’s Elephant Natural Park in 2014.
1) There are many types of elephants in Africa and Asia, with three distinct species and at least three subspecies. The African bush elephant (aka African savannah elephant) is the largest of all: it is actually the largest living terrestrial animal on the planet.
It is also the largest elephant species, although it is increasingly vulnerable to extinction due to habitat loss and poaching. As the name suggests, most of these animals are found in the bush or savannah, but some have adapted to life in the Namib and Sahara deserts. These desert elephants are not considered a distinct species.
2) The African forest elephant was once considered a subspecies of the African bush elephant, but has since been reclassified as a distinct species that was separated 2 to 7 million years ago. It is smaller, has more rounded ears and a hairier trunk than its cousins, with a declining population of about 100,000 individuals.
As the name suggests, this type of elephant prefers dense forest habitats, most of which are in Gabon. They feed mainly on fruit (the leaves and bark that make up the rest of their diet) and live in smaller, more isolated groups of 2 to 8 family members.
3) There are three different types of elephants that are currently classified as Asian elephants: Indian elephants, Sri Lankan elephants and Sumatran elephants. But some studies also consider the Borneo elephant to be a fourth distinct subspecies. All are at risk due to the destruction and fragmentation of important elephant habitat.
The Indian elephant is found in 10 Southeast Asian countries, but the majority (approximately 30,000) are found in four regions of India. These include the foothills of the Himalayan mountains to the northeast and northwest, the central states of Odisha and Jharkhand, and the southern state of Karnataka.
4) The Sri Lankan elephant is the largest of the Asian subspecies, measuring 6.6 to 11.5 feet high and weighing 4,400 and 12,100 pounds. Sri Lanka has an impressive amount of elephants for such a small country (only 25,330 square miles). In fact, studies suggest that Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia.
But the habitat of the country’s elephants – mainly the low-lying parts of the dry areas of the north, east and south-east – is rapidly shrinking, unfortunately leading to an increase in conflicts between humans and animals.
5) With an estimate of only 2,400 to 2,800 individuals left in the wild (an 80% decline over the past three generations), the Sumatran elephant is by far the most critically endangered Asian subspecies. About 70% of the indonesian island’s potential elephant habitat (mainly covered forests) has been destroyed over the past 25 years, which does not bode well for hopes of future recovery.
Only 25 fragmented populations remain, of which about 80% of the range is outside the protected areas. Established in 2004 in Riau province, Tesso Nilo National Park, with an area of 390 square miles, is one of the last forested areas in Sumatra that is large enough to accommodate a viable elephant population.
6) Male elephants can grow to a height of 13 feet at shoulder level, measure up to 30 feet from the trunk to the tail and weigh up to 14,000 pounds. This may explain why elephants are the ONLY mammals that can’t jump!
7) The trunk of an elephant weighs about 400 pounds and contains about 100,000 different muscles. But, thanks to its particular physical characteristics, such as its finger-shaped appendages at the end, the elephant is agile enough to pull a single blade of grass.
8) Unless you’re ambidextrous, you probably prefer to use one hand over the other. Elephants have the same way of defending themselves: some are “left-handed”, others are “right-handed”. They prefer this defence when fighting other elephants, when they collect objects, or when they tear leaves and bark from trees. Due to constant use, their preferred defense becomes shorter over time.
9) Elephants have a highly developed brain, not to mention the largest brain in the entire animal kingdom. Their brains are 3 or 4 times larger than humans, although they are smaller in proportion to their huge body weight.
10) Elephants have an extremely slow pulse, about 27 beats per minute. Compare this pace to that of an average human (80 bpm) or a canary (1000 bpm).