Surviving wild elephants

23. May 2018

Photo Credit: Kit Jackson

Elephants ancestors appeared for the first time about 6 million years ago. This Primelephasis considered to be the genetic ancestor of all three modern elephant species, the Asian, African and the Mammuth, which survived until the end of the last ice age.

Today only the African (Loxodonta)and Asian (Elephas) species survive. African elephants can be divided into three subspecies, savannah – , forest – and desert elephants. The Asian elephants are subdivided into Sumatran -, Indian – and Sri Lankan subspecies. African elephants have much bigger ears shaped differently from the ears of their Asian cousins. Both, males and female African elephants grow tusks, while the Asian females do not. African elephants have two sensitive extensions “fingers” at the end of their trunk, which allows them to pick up small objects, while Asian elephants only have one such “finger”. Asian elephants have relatively smooth skin, while African elephants have very wrinkled skin. An elephant trunk has more than 100,00 muscles giving it extraordinary strength.

Today there are about 50,000 wild elephants surviving in Asia and about 350,000 wild elephants in Africa. The number of wild elephants is dwindling rapidly for both species. Their conservation in the wild is important. Elephants are an umbrella species, meaning that entire eco systems with many other fauna and flora species depend on their survival.

Elephants lead very complex social lives. Their immediate families of 30 to 50 members consisting mostly of females, babies and young males, (at the age around 2O males leave their initial families to form their own groups with other male youngsters) usually lead by the oldest matriarch, based on the matriarchs’s experience and intelligence. Females stay with their mothers their entire life. Elephant babies therefore benefit from the loving protection and teachings of not only their mothers, but their sisters, aunts and cousins. This original family grouping is only a part of a larger clan of many such families and the clans are part of an entire elephant eco system.

Photo Credit: Kit Jackson

In order to function successfully within their own family groupings and the larger clans and beyond, elephants possess very sophisticated social skills  close to our own. They have complete self-awareness. They know who they are and have no problem recognizing themselves in front of a mirror. But they also recognize family and clan members and outsiders clearly through touch, smell, sight, and sound. Greetings during elephant group get-togethers vary based on their family ties from immediate to distant. Elephants are quite capable of experiencing joy, sadness, and anger and express it in ways that even human animals can recognize. They mourn  their dead and cover their remains with branches and earth, and they have the uncanny ability to know locations where violent deaths have occurred, but elephants do not only recognize each other when they physically meet, but their fascinating communication capabilities allow them to “talk” to each other over long distances. We now know, based on the extensive studies conduced among others by Caitlin 0’Connel* and Dr. Joyce Poole** that elephants,  by using the tips of their trunks and the flats of their feet, receive and send seismic signals, communicating over distances of twenty miles or more.

Self awareness and awareness of one’s own and other species is relatively useless unless combined with long-term memory and empathy. As far as memory is concerned, elephants’ section of the memory part of their brain in relation to their body mass is larger than the proportionate human brain section. Survival without empathy in the wild is practically impossible. If elephants couldn’t figure out what the lion is up to when eying elephant babies, they wouldn’t know what to do to protect them. That mammals in general and elephants in particular can be compassionate, even with members of other species, has been observed between elephants and horses, dogs and other mammals.

At his point readers with a scientific bend of mind might accuse me of engaging in anthropomorphism by attributing human characteristics to another animal, even though all the reputable scientists having studied elephants for many years in the wild, sooner or later had to admit that trust between our two species is possible once elephants recognize that some humans have at least a degree of elephant attributes and wisdom.


*The Elephant’s Secret SenseCopyright ©️Caitlin O’Connel, 2007, author

first published in the USA by Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc. 2007

First published in Great Britain by Oneworld Publications 2007

ISBN: 978-1-85168-643-8


**Coming of Age with Elephants: A Memoir, Joyce Poole, author

First edition published by Hyperion, March 1997

ISBN: 978-0-78688-191-8