The elephant is the largest of the land mammals. There are two species, the African Elephant and the smaller Asiatic Elephant.
The elephant's size is notable. The large body is supported by massive limbs. The large ears are used for aggressive display and temperature regulations. The very mobile trunk is an extension of the nose and allows the elephant to drink and eat without bending down.
The tusks are elongated upper incisor teeth. They appear when the elephant is about 2-3 years of age. Tusks are very useful instruments. They are used to dig for water, salt and roots, to strip the bark, fell or mark trees, for work (as in Asiatic Elephants), as a weapon of offence and defence, and as a trunk protector and rester. Both male and female African Elephants have tusks, whilst only the male Asiatic Elephants has large tusks, the female Asiatic Elephant's being much smaller - approximately 10 cm and referred to as tusks.
Males mate with any females that are in oestrus (fertile). Gestation is 22 months. Young elephants and their mothers have a very close relationship, with weaning occurring at approximately 4 years of age. Elephants become mature between 11-20 years of age.
The Asiatic Elephant is found in the forests and humid jungles of Asia. They require rich, plentiful vegetation and adequate water supply. The elephant is constantly on the move over quite large distances, using pathways to feeding areas, drinking pools and mud wallows. With increasing habitat destruction, elephant groups are being fragmented and over-population is causing significant damage to vegetation and terrain.
The elephant is a very social animal. The basic family unit is a mature female, the most recent offspring and older offspring. This unit may number about six. Together with other related family units, they form a herd.
The males leave the family unit when they reach puberty. They may be solitary or form temporary bull groups. Mature males have a brief association with family units, when mating with mature cows. The herd, led by a dominant matriarch, is close-knit and members both help and protect family units
Calf mortality in the first year varies from 5% to 30%, depending on the area. A few calves are taken by predators, such as tigers.
Elephant populations have declined in Asia for several reasons. Natural habitat destruction has been enormous. This has been under the pressure of continuing increase of human population and of the export timber and mining industry. These pressures have resulted in conflict between local human population and elephants.
The elephant is still a prized beast of burden in Asia. Both legal and illegal capture exists in many countries.
Male Asiatic Elephants are killed for ivory tusks. The female do not have tusks and are therefore under less threat. Political unrest and war has had, and continues to have adverse effects on elephant populations.
Diet In the Wild
In the wild, the elephant may spend as much as 16 hours per day foraging for food eating leaves, grass, shrubs, tree bark and fruit. An elephant may drink as much as 150 litres of water a day. In large herds and in dry seasons, they can be very destructive to the environment.
Diet at the Zoo
The elephants are given three feeds a day; hay consisting of horse cubes, bran, fruit, vegetables, bread, rice and fresh fodder.
Three sub-species have been identified:
1. The Sri Lankan Asian Elephant.
2. The Mainland Asian Elephant occurring in scattered populations of 12 Asian countries from India through the Malay Peninsula to Borneo.
3. The Sumatran Asian Elephant.
There are two main threats to elephants; firstly through destruction of their habitat and secondly through poaching for the illegal ivory trade. Elephant conservation therefore, has taken the form of protecting existing habitat in national parks and enforcing the ban on trade in ivory and other elephant products.
At Perth Zoo
Tricia, an Asiatic Elephant of unknown origin, arrived at Perth Zoo in 1963 aged about 6. More recently Perth Zoo received 3 baby elephants, which were taken from the wild in Malaysia as part of that country's attempts to implement its elephant conservation program. They went on display on 25 December 1992, aged between 2 and 3 years. When mature, a breeding program is planned for the 1 male and 2 females which are all unrelated.