Elephants are the only remaining members of the Proboscidea order of mammals. The order included the extinct wooly mammoth and American mastodon.
Elephants are a “keystone species.” If a keystone species disappears through extinction or removal, the entire ecosystem would change drastically. Other species rely on the keystone species for survival.
Today there are three surviving elephant species:
Asian elephant (Elephas Maximus)
African savanna elephant (Loxodonta Africana)
African forest elephant (Loxodonta Cyclotis)
Among Asian elephants (Elephas Maximus), there are three subspecies: Indian, Sri Lankan, and Sumatran. These are distinguished by physical traits related to their geographic location. African savannah elephants (Loxodonta Africana) live in the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa. African forest elephant (Loxodonta Cyclotis) live in the Congo River Basin in western central Africa. Asian elephants live throughout southeastern Asia, from as far west as India to as far east as the Indonesian islands.
There are several anatomical and behavioral differences between the different species. Most noticeable is the difference in ears. African savanna elephants have large ears shaped much like the continent of Africa. African forest elephants’ ears are more oval shaped. Asians, who live in cooler forest areas, have smaller ears. Asian elephants also have rounded backs and relatively smooth skin while African elephants display a sway back and very wrinkled skin.
African elephants of both sexes generally (but not always) grow long incisor teeth called tusks. Among Asian elephants, only males exhibit tusks, and not all males have them. Asian elephants have one small finger-like projection at the end of the trunk. African elephants have two “fingers.” These “fingers” are very sensitive and make it possible for elephants to pick up very small objects. Elephants have more than 100,000 muscles in the trunk making it very flexible and strong enough to lift trees.
All elephant species are herbivores, consuming only plant material. The elephants of Africa are grazers, and eat mostly grasses, turning to leaves, twigs, bark, flowers, and fruits when the grasses are not available. Asians are browsers and consume a similar range of plants, including large amounts of bamboo.
All elephants are herd animals with very definite social structure. Herds are led by a matriarch, usually the oldest female, and are made up of daughters, sisters and their offspring. Male elephants stay with the herd through adolescence and then move away as they grow older. Male elephants often stay independent, but sometimes band together in bachelor pods. African savannah elephants can live in very large herds consisting of anywhere from 20 to 70 individuals, while the African forest elephants like the Asian elephants generally live in smaller herds.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals whose continued existence is threatened. Loss of habitat, human-elephant conflict, and poaching for ivory and bushmeat are great threats to elephant populations. As of 2013, the Asian elephant population had experienced a 90 percent decline in the past 100 years and some experts suggest 95 percent of their original habitat has been lost over the same period. Estimates vary, but most agree that there has been a 75 percent decline in the elephant population in Africa. Today there are thought to be between 300,000 and 500,000 wild elephants in Africa and less than 60,000 wild elephants in Asia. Asian elephants are recognized as an endangered species. African elephants are recognized as threatened.
Since the third millennium BC, elephants have been held in captivity. They have been used as beasts of burden, tools of war, and objects of interest and curiosity. In 1796, an American merchant imported a young female Asian elephant for exhibit, the first in North America. Throughout the 1800s, the demand for elephants in exhibits and circuses increased significantly. Young elephants were being captured from the wild at an early age, separated from their family herds, and sold to a life of performance, travel, confined spaces, and exhibition. By the late 20th century, research and observation led many to conclude that elephants are highly intelligent and emotionally complex animals whose needs can not be met in captivity. In 1995, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee was founded as a refuge where captive elephants could safely live our their lives in a natural habitat setting in the company of other elephants.