Asian elephants are herbivores, which means their diet consists only of plants. A lot of vegetation is needed every day to feed a three ton animal. These hungry animals do not sleep much, and they roam over great distances while foraging for the large quantities of food they require to sustain their massive bodies. Their diets are highly variable, both seasonally and across habitats and regions. Elephants primarily feed on the leaves, bark, and fruits of trees and shrubs, but they may also eat many types of grasses and herbs. Cultivated crops such as bananas, rice and sugarcane are also favoured foods. In our park, the elephants mainly feed on the pineapple plant, sugarcane and bananas. However, the mahouts frequently take them grazing outside the camp to provide greater variation in their diet. They usually drink at least once a day so they are always close to a source of fresh water. They need 150-200 litres of water every day and a single trunk full may provide 10 litres at a time!
In the wild, the Asian elephant plays a crucial role in forest ecosystems by affecting many other organisms. They do this by opening up forest clearings that encourage tree regeneration and by helping to distribute the seeds of trees and shrubs. Elephant feeding behaviour often ensures that no plant species is able to dominate the environment. If a key species like the elephant is removed, an ecosystem may experience a dramatic shift.
The natural life span of the elephant is generally between 50 and 70 years but some have been known to survive for more than 80 years. Elephant calves need milk for the first two years of their lives but often continue to suckle until they are four years old. Females normally produce their first baby at around 15 years of age and there is an interval of 4-5 years between calves. Males leave their natal group when they reach sexual maturity at around six to seven years of age, after which time they may be solitary or live with other males. When males reach 20 years, they start coming into ‘musth’, an extreme state of arousal when levels of testosterone in the blood may increase 20-40 times. This state lasts for about three weeks (and sometimes much longer). The individual will become aggressive and in the wild he will wander widely in search of females. Often, elephants in musth discharge a thick tar-like secretion from glands on the sides of the head and this trickles down the cheeks towards the mouth. Musth prepares the male to mate and to fight other competing bull elephants, but a male in musth will also attack humans and other animals, and may destroy inanimate objects that get in its way. Clearly musth has implications for captive elephants and males in musth must always be kept isolated and handled with the utmost care. Female elephants reach sexual maturity at about ten years of age and usually produce their first calf when they are 14-15 years old. The interval between births may be as long as four years. At birth, a calf weighs about 100 kg. The gestation period is 18-22 months and at the time of birth the whole herd will circle around the cow to protect both her and the baby. As soon as it has been born, the family of elephants will help it to stand. The calf may suckle from other females in the group as well as its own mother. At birth, a calf’s trunk has no muscle tone and will suckle through its mouth; it takes several months for a calf to gain full control of its trunk.
The courtship between a male and a female elephant is short lived. They will rub their bodies on each other and even wrap trunks. The females tend to run away from the males and he will have to pursue her. This can continue for a considerable time before mating actually occurs. Older males that are 40 to 50 years old are the most likely to breed with the females. The younger ones are no match for the size, strength and experience of the older bulls.
Species and subspecies
The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is considered to be a single species with three subspecies: • The Indian (Elephas maximus indicus) • Sumatran (Elephas maximus sumatranus) • Sri Lankan (Elephas maximus maximus) The Indian has the widest range and accounts for the majority of the remaining elephants on the continent. The Sri Lankan elephant is physically the largest of the subspecies and also the darkest in colour. The Sumatran is the smallest.
Elephants form deep family bonds and live in tight family groups of related females called a herd. The herd is led by the oldest and often largest female, called the matriarch. Herds consist of 8-100 individuals depending on terrain and family size. When a calf is born, it is raised and protected by the whole herd. Males leave the family unit between the ages of 12-15 years and may lead solitary lives or live temporarily with other males. Female elephants are more social than males. Female family members often stay together for their entire lives. Mothers and aunts protect calves when they are threatened. Asian elephants have also been known to stay behind with a sick or injured herd mate to protect and assist it. Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that span many years. It is this memory that serves matriarchs well during dry seasons when they need to guide their herds, sometimes for tens of miles, to watering holes that they remember from the past. Recent discoveries have shown that elephants can communicate through long distances by producing a sub-sonic rumble that can travel over the ground faster than sound through air. Other elephants receive the messages through the sensitive skin on their feet and trunks. It is believed that this is how potential mates and social groups communicate.
From about 4,000 B.C. the Asian elephant ranged from Mesopotamia in the west across the Indian subcontinent to South-east Asia and China and to the Yangtze River in the north. Today they are found across 13 Asian countries: India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. In the nature, the Asian elephant inhabits a variety of tropical and sub-tropical habitats from moist, evergreen lowland forest to dry semi-deciduous teak forests to cooler mountain forests. Their varied diet enables them to live in forests disturbed by humans as long as they have plenty of space to move around and can exploit different foods without coming into conflict with people.