Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- Elephants live around 45 years (Asian) and 60-70 years (African) in the wild, but have shorter lifespans in captivity.
- Elephants are highly intelligent, social creatures with deep emotional capacity and long memories.
- There are three distinct species: African savannah elephant, African forest elephant, and Asian elephant.
- Elephants play a vital role in maintaining their ecosystems, especially in preserving the African savannah.
- Poaching for ivory is a major threat to elephants, contributing to their endangered status.
Elephants are huge, awe-inspiring creatures. While we aren’t related to them in the evolutionary chain, humans and elephants have quite a lot in common. Intelligence, long memories, emotional capacity, and even average lifespan.
But how long do elephants live?
The average lifespan of a wild Asian elephant is around 45 years. Meanwhile, African elephants can live up to 60 or 70 years. Captive-born elephants tend to have much shorter lifespans.
In fact, they rarely make it beyond twenty years of age. It’s theorized that the stress of captivity causes them to die much sooner than they would in the wild.
Everything You Need To Know About Elephants
Elephants are fascinating, intelligent, and beautiful creatures. They don’t just look great in zoos or inspire wonder in those who encounter them; elephants need our help. All kinds of elephants are endangered. The best place to start conserving them is to learn about these majestic behemoths.
What Even Is An Elephant?
Elephants are large, land-dwelling mammals. They have big, flattened ears, long tusks, and an extremely long nose called a trunk. Both male and female elephants grow tusks.
An elephant’s tusks protect their trunk, but they also use them as tools. Sometimes they even use them to fight. Their trunks function like limbs, letting them grab things and helping them drink water.
Elephants can be found in both Africa and Asia. In their respective environments, they’re the largest animals you’re likely to find.
In fact, elephants are so big that they’re the biggest land animals in the world!
While some ancient creatures like brachiosaurs and mammoths were larger, none of them are around today.
What Types Of Elephants Exist?
Three distinct species of elephants exist:
- The African savannah elephant,
- The African forest elephants, and
- The forest elephants found in Asia
Many sub-species exist based on their geographic location and breeding pools.
Only small differences exist between subspecies, which is why only two are recognized.
The Asian elephant is smaller than the African elephant. This makes the African elephant the largest land animal currently living on Earth. African forest elephants are much like their savannah cousins. However, they are genetically different enough to merit their own classification.
Visually, all African elephants look very similar. The major differences come when comparing Asian and African elephants to each other.
Aside from Asian elephants being smaller in stature, they also look different at a glance. Asian elephants have smaller ears than their African cousins.
They also differ when it comes to tusks. For example, only some Asian elephant males will grow tusks, while all male and female African elephants will grow them.
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Elephant Life Cycle
Elephants are incredibly intelligent and social creatures. They can communicate with each other very well. They’re even capable of experiencing deep emotions and forming bonds with other elephants. Elephants can even remember and recognize individual animals they haven’t seen for years.
Male elephants live in small bachelor groups or on their own. When it’s time to mate, they seek out females and temporarily join their herd.
Females and calves live in complex social groups. The herd is led by the oldest female in the group, called a matriarch. She is usually the mother of many of the elephants in the herd.
Elephants have a gestation period of 22 months, meaning their pregnancy lasts almost two years. That’s the longest pregnancy of any known mammal!
A female will give birth to a single calf once every four or five years. This gives them time to go through a long pregnancy and raise their baby to be semi-independent. It’s rare for them to give birth to more than one calf at a time.
The females in the herd care for the calves together. Female calves may stay with their maternal herd their entire lives. Male calves leave once they reach puberty.
Males will eventually seek out a herd of females to find a potential mate. After they have finished, the male will stay nearby to guard the female from any other males in the area.
Outside of mating, males tend to stay away from herds of females. Barring illness, poachers, or any other problems, elephants live to a ripe old age. African elephants tend to reach 60 or seventy years of age in the wild, while Asian elephants live closer to 45 years.
Since elephants are so big, it takes a lot of food to keep them going. Thankfully, these huge creatures are herbivores, meaning they feed exclusively on plants.
Elephants eat leaves, twigs, bark, fruit, grass, and roots. Their trunks allow them to grasp tree limbs and strip them of leaves. They can then feed themselves using their trunk.
Many elephants use their tusks to strip bark from trees or root around in the soil. It leaves deep grooves but helps them find food when there aren’t enough grasses or leaves available.
An average elephant can spend up to 18 hours a day feeding. To fuel their huge bodies, an elephant can eat hundreds of pounds of plant matter every day. Most elephants will also tend to stay near water sources since they can drink up to 40 liters (11 gallons) of water per day.
Kind of like us, they tend to eat the biggest meals three times per day. The morning, afternoon, and evening are all prime feeding times.
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Importance Of Elephants In Their Ecosystems
Because of their massive size, elephants are almost invulnerable when it comes to predators. Healthy adult elephants don’t have any predators to worry about. Only very sick, old, or young elephants fall prey to other animals.
Elephants still play a crucial role in their ecosystems. They are one of the most important keystone species in the African savannah.
Elephants’ biggest contribution to their environment doesn’t seem that impactful on the surface. They kill trees because they eat their leaves and bark, and uproot most of the trees they find around them.
They’ll also consume young tree shoots before they have a chance to grow into full trees.
In many cases, this might seem like elephants are destroying their habitat and could be seen as a problematic species. In actuality, it’s the exact opposite.
Elephants are the only thing that maintains and preserves the African savannah. Their “destruction” of trees keeps the overall density of trees low.
Without elephants, more trees would be able to grow in the savannah. Over a long enough period of time, this would transform the open grasslands into woodlands or forests.
Most animals that share the African savannah with elephants are specially adapted to live in grasslands. Even many of the plants found there wouldn’t be able to survive if the habitat shifted into a forest.
Elephants are a keystone species because their behaviors in reducing tree density are why the savannah exists today. Without them, the entire ecosystem would be dramatically different.
Only their maintenance stands in the way of everything crashing down. This is why they’re a vital species in preserving nearly all of the animals and plants in Africa’s grassland.
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How Long Do Elephants Live And What Impacts Their Lifespan
We’ve already discussed the typical lifespan of elephants, but we haven’t gone into what can impact how long they will live.
As stated, African elephants typically live for up to 60 or 70 years. Asian elephants live for closer to 45 years. Both of these figures are their averages while in the wild.
In the wild, elephants don’t face many threats from predators. Even when they’re young and vulnerable, they’re never far from a herd of massive adults. Humans are the biggest threat to elephants.
Poaching, which we’ll explore in depth in the next section, is one of the biggest threats to elephants. Their tusks are made of a valuable material called ivory, which sells for high prices. This leads to the illegal hunting of elephants. It’s the largest contributor to their population decline in the past.
Poachers aren’t the only thing elephants have to worry about. Climate change and habitat destruction are major factors in their lives.
As the climate gets warmer, it also gets drier. Elephants find less food and available water, which hinders their ability to live their full lifespan.
Because of their huge food needs, elephants roam far and wide to feed themselves. As humans build out and take up more space, that means there is less space available for elephants to find food.
Diverting rivers for human needs can lead to a lack of water and a shift in habitat for elephants. While they can go a long way in search of food and water, they can still contribute to some population declines.
In captivity, elephants face other problems.
Even in the largest possible enclosure, elephants will never have enough space. They range far and wide in search of food and get plenty of exercise in the process. Additionally, elephants are smart. There simply isn’t enough stimulation a zoo can give them to keep their minds occupied.
If that wasn’t enough, most elephants are incredibly social. They spend time in herds of up to twenty and have a dozen elephants around them on average. In a zoo setting, that number falls to one or two in most cases.
That boredom, lack of social structure, and the stress of living in a zoo all wear on elephants mentally. Elephants born in the wild can live to their normal old age when properly cared for. Still, captive-born elephants typically live much shorter lives.
In most cases of captivity, the mental stress eventually leads to premature deaths for the animals. Sometimes the animal is cared for properly. A few notable elephants have even lived beyond their wild lifespan, reaching up to ninety years old. This is exceptionally rare.
Poaching: What Is It and Why You Should Care
Poaching is a bit of a hot topic to touch and one I’ve gone in-depth on before. You can find that article here, but in this article, we’ll be discussing poaching as it directly concerns elephants.
To start, what even is poaching? Poaching is the illegal hunting, killing, or harvesting of plants or animals.
But why would it be illegal to hunt an elephant?
It’s a basic question, and one you’re probably thinking doesn’t deserve an answer because who would want to kill a beautiful animal anyways? Well, I’ll answer that one, too but touching on why hunting is regulated at all is important.
Once we reached a technological point where hunting was much easier, we were able to effectively wipe out regional populations and even entire species.
It’s happened all over the world and led to drastic ecological impacts that we’ve only just begun to understand as our knowledge advances.
A quick list of examples would include the elimination of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, the near extinction of fur seals in northern waters, and overall dwindling fish stocks worldwide.
In response to the ability of commercial industries to wipe out animals faster than they can replace themselves, governments around the world institute limits on hunting. In simple terms, scientists do the math and decide how many animals can be harvested per year.
When it comes to elephants and other endangered species, human harvesting has put them very close to a point where they will go extinct and no longer exist. So that’s why it’s (usually) illegal to hunt elephants.
So back to the other question: why would anyone want to kill an elephant in the first place?
An elephant’s tusks are made of a material called ivory. Ivory is a beautiful white material that can only be found on animals like elephants and rhinos. It’s also very valuable thanks to its beauty and its overall rarity.
In the past, ivory was a valuable resource in markets around the world. Today, most places have banned the trade of ivory to discourage poachers. Asian markets are the drivers of the ivory trade today thanks to traditional Chinese medicine and some cultural signs of wealth.
Black market dealers are willing to pay big bucks for an elephant tusk because of this. In impoverished regions like much of Africa, a single tusk will net a family more money than they could make in a year on their own.
When it comes to elephants, poaching them can lead to life-changing money for people who desperately need it. In most cases, these are the people hunting elephants, not the ultra-rich or trophy hunters.
Elephants have long gestational periods and long periods between births, and the fact that they only have one calf at a time. Because of this, elephants can’t reproduce fast enough to outpace the number of elephants killed by people each year.
Around 30,000 elephants are shot and killed for their tusks each year in Africa. With elephant birth rates, this is not sustainable. Poaching is the main reason elephants are listed as endangered animals, though efforts are constantly being made to lower those numbers.
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Other Human-Elephant Interactions
Not all human-elephant interactions are as bad as poaching. Elephants aren’t predators and don’t go out of their way to attack people. That being said, not all interactions are positive ones.
With human encroachment, people and elephants come into contact more and more frequently.
Male elephants are especially aggressive if they feel threatened or their territory is infringed upon. It isn’t uncommon for a testosterone-fueled elephant to trample people. Even getting too close to females and their babies comes with risk.
Elephants also eat a lot. People growing crops in areas with elephants routinely see elephants eating through the crops in their fields and ruining whatever plants they had growing.
Throughout history, elephants have been used in a wide range of capacities.
War elephants were used by many ancient cultures, including the Romans, Greeks, and Persians, as well as cultures in Africa and India. These were elephants trained to charge enemy lines and break through their ranks, trampling soldiers underfoot.
Tamed elephants have also been used throughout history as pack animals and mounts.
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Fun Facts About Elephants
This section is just a bunch of quick hits and interesting facts about elephants to help further expand your knowledge about them.
Elephants are mammals like us, meaning they’re warm-blooded. They don’t sweat like us, though. They use their massive ears as fans to help regulate their body heat. In the hottest parts of the day, they nap in the shade.
Elephants have extremely long memories. Cases have been documented where elephants have recognized and remembered people they have dealt with years in the past.
We talked about how elephants can feel deep emotions. Did you know elephants mourn and even cry when one of their friends or family members dies? Some elephants even starve themselves to death out of grief.
Elephants also form close bonds with other elephants in their herd. This holds true for bachelor groups of males and larger female-led herds.
An elephant’s trunk has over 150,000 muscles in it. They’re very nimble, dextrous, and useful for the elephants. When they’re swimming, they even use their trunk as a snorkel!
Elephant tusks are actually teeth. They begin to appear when the elephant reaches around two years of age. They will then continue to grow the entire life of the elephant.
Why are elephants so smart?
Scientists believe that elephants’ large brains and long lifespans (up to 70 years in the wild) contribute to their intelligence. Elephants’ brains are similar to humans’ in terms of structure and function, and they have more neurons than any other land animal. This allows them to process information and learn from experience.
In captivity, elephants have been known to perform complex tricks, like painting pictures and playing musical instruments.
Do elephants bury their dead?
Elephants are known to be highly intelligent creatures, capable of using tools, communicating with each other, and showing empathy. So it’s no surprise that they have also been observed engaging in what appears to be funeral rites for their dead.
What is a group of elephants called?
A group of elephants is called a herd. A herd of elephants is usually made up of related females and their calves, led by a matriarch. Male elephants typically live alone or in small groups, but they may join a herd during the breeding season.