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Some Facts about the Asian Elephant

Scientific name: Elephas maximus (translation: ‘huge arch’)

Sub-species: the species is divided into two, sometimes four sub-species: the Indian Elephant and the South-East Asian Elephant. The latter is divided into the Sumatran Elephant and the Sri Lankan Elephant.

Number in Laos: only an estimated 1000 individuals or a few more are left in the country of ‘One Million Elephants’… of which around 60 elephants live in this park.

Description: an Asian elephant is about 2-3 meters high at the shoulder and its back is arched (see scientific name). It holds its head over the body, thus it's head is the highest point of the animal. It weighs 2.5-3.5 tons in average. Only the males have ivory tusks, but not all (females occasionally have very short ones); the tusk grows at a rate of one inch per year. They prefer cooler weather in comparison to their African relatives.

Relatives: the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), which is larger and weighs up to 7 tons, and has the distinctively larger ears; both sexes have tusks, their back has a dip, but is not arched. It is divided into three sub-species: the Bush Elephant, Forest Elephant and Desert Elephant.

Trunk: the characteristic trunk is an elongation of the nose and upper lip. It has no bones, but over 40.000 tiny muscles that give it its incredible flexibility and strength. An elephant uses its trunk to breathe, eat, drink, pick up things, throw things, feel, smell, fight and play, squirt water, mud and dust, greet and touch other elephants, and to make sounds. Not surprisingly, baby elephants take a long time to learn all the different ways of using it. Unlike the African elephant, the Asian elephant has only one finger at the tip of the trunk.

Age: an elephant can reach an age of 60-70 years. Older elephants move less quickly than others. The group slows down to wait for them. When an elephant has worn down its sixth and final set of teeth, feeding becomes difficult. It cannot grind and digest its food properly anymore. Eventually, feeding becomes impossible altogether, and the elephant collapses and dies from malnutrition. A dying elephant is comforted by other family members. If a family member dies, the other members try to lift it up again. The group often lingers for days, apparently showing respect for the dead. Elephants also seem to remember where family members have died.

Elephant ‘graveyards’: in stories and films elephants slip away to secret communal places to die. The belief in elephant graveyards arose when people found large collections of bones in one place. Actually, these places were probably once watering holes of drought stricken elephants. Also here at Ban Na such stories can be heard.

Offspring: baby elephants are born with lots of hair. On average, a calf measures about 90 centimetres in height and weighs over a 100 kilograms at birth. The calves spend a lot of their time playing around. They enjoy contact plays like fighting and mounting as well as chasing others. Male elephants cannot ‘recognize' their children. The opposite is true for the female family members. They form very intimate bonds; the mother-child tie is the strongest one amongst elephants. Baby elephants need the guidance of their mother and die quickly if they are left alone.

Reproduction: female Asian elephants become mature at the age of 9-10 years (males mature a few years later). They give birth to their first calf when they are between 10 and 20 years old. After that, they can produce a calf every 4-6 years up to the age of 50. This would lead to 5-12 offspring in a lifetime. Female elephants are pregnant for nearly two years. Usually, just when the first calf can feed itself, the next one arrives. The mother feeds its young up to six years. Elephants can potentially breed throughout the year, but do so often in the rainy season. A courtship is elaborate and cow and bull usually mate many times.

Food: as plant feeders (herbivores’’), elephants are the largest consumer of plants among terrestrial animals. They eat almost every part of their selected plant (from leaves, twigs, bark and root to flowers, fruits, seeds and thorns). Preferred plants are banana, bamboo and sugarcane. Plants do not contain much nutrition, so an elephant has to eat huge quantities (sometimes up to 150 kg a day). It spends about 16 hours a day eating. Its body leaves about half of the food undigested. Baby elephants often eat the dung of the adults in order to pick up microscopic organisms that live inside the gut and to help them digest the food.

Saltlick: plants do not contain minerals in sufficient quantities. Therefore, plant feeders need to find additional sources of essential salts and other minerals. At some places the soil contains the necessary salts (a ‘saltlick’). At these places elephants dig deeper into in the ground. Traces of this digging are found at the elephant observation tower in Ban Na. Elephants, but also deer and other herbivores, congregate at such places regularly to find their necessary food supplement. Fortunately, this saltlick is situated near a small stream containing water all year round, another crucial ingredient of an elephant's wellbeing.

Water: elephants have to drink 70-90, sometimes up to 200 litres water a day, but can live without it for nearly two weeks. Each time an adult sucks water with its trunk, it may contain already 8-10 litres of fluid. Elephants can smell water nine kilometres away. Elephants love water! Frequent bathing is essential to wash off disease-carrying insects and parasites as well as dust and mud. On the other hand, mud provides a barrier from the heat of the sun, thus keeping the animal cool. It also helps to prevent insect attacks. The youngsters enjoy to play and splash around. Elephants are actually good swimmers, using the trunk as a snorkel while swimming underwater.

Habitat: the Asian elephant prefers woody open lands like bamboo thickets. It does not like dense forests. A degraded landscape is therefore not a problem – unless it deprives them from food, water and ‘privacy’, meaning space for their natural habitat.

Behaviour: elephants are highly social animals, communicating through smell, sound and contact. They sleep only about 3-4 hours a night and yawn and snore like humans. In the wild, older bulls live a solitary life and approach a family only when a female is ready to mate. The females, however, live in some form of small stable social group, often including female family members and their offspring, incorporated in a larger network of groups. Usually, the oldest and largest adult female becomes the matriarch (female leader). She has all the experience and makes the decisions for the group. Female elephants never leave the matriarchal unit unless it becomes too big. Juvenile bulls form loose bonds with other males lasting for a few days and only visit family groups occasionally. They gradually become separated from their family.

Musth: about once a year, adult bulls go through a period of unpredictable, aggressive behaviour, called musth. A bull in musth oozes a sticky fluid with a pungent smell from the side of its face between its eyes and ears. His blood now contains a very high level of testosterone, the sex hormone. This period may last for only few days up to three months, but is not bound to a special period of the year. The older and stronger the bull, the longer the period of musth. Having a dominant status in the social hierarchy, it is most likely for him to associate with a female herd. When he is not in musth, a smaller or younger musth bull might gain dominance.

Aggression: environmental influences and learning are important factors in the development of behaviour, including aggression. The elephant-human relationship has always been one of prey-predator in the eyes of an elephant. The intensity of an elephant's aggressive response can be expected to have been moulded by its past interactions with people, e.g. in regions where they have been harassed by hunters and encroachers.

Sound: the typical high-pitched trumpeting sound can be heard when an elephant is excited, surprised, angry or lost. They also make a variety of crying, bellowing, screaming, snorting and a wide range of low, grumbling sounds that carry for long distances through the forest. Different rumbles (partly on infra-sound level which humans can feel sometimes) also mean different expressions. Their sense of hearing is very well developed.

Enemies: adult elephants have no serious predators apart from people, who kill them for their ivory tusks and some other body parts or destroy their habitats. Yet elephants can also be killed by diseases, accidents, droughts or floods just like any other animal.

Future: nowadays, elephants are in great danger and must be protected if they are to survive in the future. Asian elephants are most at risk due to habitat loss, not so much due to ivory trade. Only between 36.000 and 44.000 individuals are left in the wild, with little over a thousand in Laos.