Elephants are the largest land mammals on earth. Their size, unique shape, intelligence and strong family bonds have amazed and inspired humans throughout the centuries. In many myths and religions the elephant has become a symbolic figure, evident in the countless paintings, carvings and drawings throughout history.
Elephants are presumed to have originated some 55 million years ago, on the plains of northern Africa. There were many evolutionary offshoots from this ancestor and it is believed that over 300 different species of trunked animals once roamed the earth. Today, only the elephants survive – the African and the Asian.
In 1971, there were thought to be five sub-species of African elephant. Two of these were the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana africana, found in southern and East Africa) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis, found in Central Africa). However, recent genetic studies have shown that these two are actually genetically distinct and are now known as Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis. In 2002, genetic studies of dung samples from all over Africa indicated that there may be a third sub-species or even separate species, living in a combination of forest and savanna habitats, which is found only in West Africa.
Forest elephants are significantly smaller than the savanna forms. They rarely exceed 2.5 m, compared to a height of 3.5 – 4 m. They also have longer narrower jawbones, longer, thinner and straighter tusks, smaller and more rounded ears, a flatter forehead region and a larger number of toenail-like structures on their feet.
Although the same species as savanna and forest elephants, desert elephant are generally smaller and have larger feet, to allow them to deal with the softer, sandier ground in their habitats. Desert elephants are found predominantly in northwest Namibia and they generally inhabit the ancient, ephemeral riverbeds that are found here. These seasonal rivers are dependent on local rainfall. However in times of drought, the water still flows, but deep under the desert sand.
There is a debate amongst zoologists and scientists as to whether these desert dwelling animals should be classified as a different species of elephant. Desert elephants are apparently very well adapted to living under the particular conditions of the desert. They routinely move great distances between feeding grounds and the scattered waterholes where they drink during the dry season, distances of up to 70 km being regularly traversed.
Desert elephants feed on a wide range of plants, and like elephants elsewhere they take leaves, shoots, bark, flowers, fruit, bulbs, tubers and roots as well as grass and sedges. They have distinct and practical seasonal feeding preferences. During the rains, the elephants tend to use more grass, which then becomes abundantly available, and during the dry season, they concentrate on browsing. This allows the woody plants a measure of respite for recovering during the summer.
The most obvious difference between the African and the Asian elephant is the size of their ears – those of the African are larger and shaped like the continent of Africa while those of the Asian are smaller and shaped like India. The African species has a two-fingered tip to the trunk while the Asian elephant has one ‘finger’.
Both male and female African elephants usually have tusks: the males’ typically longer. Asian elephant males have tusks that are more curved and thicker than those of the African species. Female Asian elephants have very small tusks or none at all. The skin is both lighter and less hairy in an African elephant.