This post forms part of the monthly “Did you know” column written by Bill Torbitt for Flamingo magazine. It originally appeared in the November 2012 issue.
THEIR EVOLUTION AND DISTRIBUTION WORLDWIDE
Elephants are descended from Moeritherium, a small pig-like animal that lived about 37 million years ago.
Today there are probably about 600 000 African elephants in the world, and only a tenth as many Asian ones.
Although people may assume that Asian and African elephants are the same animals living on different continents, they are different species and, in fact, different genera, which almost never interbreed.
Another genus of the elephant family was the Arctic-adapted woolly mammoth, which died out in northern Europe and America around 10 000 years ago.
FROM ANIMALS OF WAR TO BEASTS OF BURDEN
Elephants were used as animals of war from antiquity until fairly recent times as beasts of burden and in battle for charging and terrifying the enemy.
Alexander the Great used them; Hannibal, the North African general, had about forty when he famously crossed the Alps to attack Rome; and Pyrrhus, king of Epirus (modern Albania) used them in his battles, which he usually won but with great casualties to the animals – hence a ‘Pyrrhic victory’.
THEIR DISTRIBUTION IN NAMIBIA
Namibia is especially famed for its now thriving population of some 600 desert-adapted elephants living in Damaraland and the Kunene Region.
The Etosha National Park contains about 2 500 elephants, with some thousands more in the north-east and Caprivi Region. Numbers are approximate, since elephants are no respecters of park or even national boundaries and casually roam through neighbouring territory, much to the concern of local inhabitants.
ELEPHANT FACTS AND FIGURES
The dentition of elephants is unique – the tusks are the incisors, and there is a set of molars that are continuously worn down, due to the animals’ fibrous diet. These are replaced by new molars growing in from the back of the jaw.
The elephant’s trunk is one of the most versatile organs in the animal kingdom – sensitive enough to take a peanut from a human hand and strong enough to lift a log weighing several hundred kilograms.
It contains 150 000 muscles, can function as a drinking straw, weapon and scent ‘periscope’, and is a social interaction tool.
Adult elephants need some 300 kg of food per day – their stomachs do little or no digestion, and although their intestines are 20 metres long, they digest only about 25% of the nutritive value of the vegetation they eat, the rest being excreted.
Consequently, the dung is an excellent food source for birds and insects, as well as being raw material for elephant dung paper!
HABITS AND SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR
Elephants are social animals living in matriarchal groups – a senior female with her daughters or other female relatives. In a pattern unfortunately sometimes reminiscent of human society, males play no part in the rearing of their young, preferring to leave the family group to spend their lives in ‘men’s gangs’.
Elephants, of course, ‘trumpet’ when excited or angry, but most of their sound communication is done with hyposonic ‘mumbling’, inaudible to human ears.
Whether an elephant never forgets is difficult to verify, but it is true that elephants have an excellent memory, and recognise family members from whom they have been separated years ago.
The myth of ‘elephant graveyards’ is exactly that – a myth, which probably rises from the fevered fantasies of hunters happening on vast hauls of ivory.
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