Elephants and their relatives have been walking the earth for roughly 55 million years. Between then and now, scientists have suggested that there have been as many as 300 distinct species of elephants. Currently, there are three species of elephant; two in Africa and one in Asia.
The largest of the three (and the world’s largest land animal) is the African bush, or African savanna, elephant. They can weigh between 9,000 and 12,000 pounds, and stands between 10 and 13 feet tall at the shoulder. African bush elephants inhabit the grasslands, savannah, and scrub of Eastern and Southern Africa. The second species, the African forest elephant, inhabits the rainforests of Central and Western Africa. They are the smallest of the three species, weighing between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds, and reaching between 5 and 7 feet in height at the shoulder. Finally the Asian elephant ranges from the Indian subcontinent, through Southeast Asia, and into the Indonesian archipelago. They inhabit a wide variety of habitats, from grasslands and scrub to dense jungles. They weigh between 8,000 and 11,000 pounds and are between 9 and 12 feet tall at the shoulder.
There are some key differences between the African elephants and the Asian elephant. The ears of the Asian elephants are much smaller than those of the African elephants at about 1/3 the size. Additionally African elephants have more of a saddle-shaped back whereas Asian elephants have more of a humped back. The forehead of the Asian elephant has two domes, while African elephants have a flatter forehead. Also, the Asian elephant only has one digit at the end of its trunk and the African elephants have two. Finally, both genders within the African elephants have tusks whereas only male Asian elephants have tusks.
While the African bush elephant is listed as vulnerable, both the African forest elephant and Asian elephant are listed as endangered. There are about 300,000 African bush elephants and roughly 100,000 African forest elephants left. This is a far cry from the approximately 1 million elephants inhabiting the continent in the 1970s. The primary cause for this steep decline is the ivory trade. Throughout history, many countries see ivory as a status symbol. This is why some have referred to ivory as “white gold.” Additionally, with many East Asian countries showing a growing middle class, it comes as no surprise that the demand for ivory has increased as well. While there are laws in place to prevent trade, not all of them are successful. This has led to a situation where approximately one elephant is killed every 15 minutes.
In Asia, the story is very different. Here, the continent’s 35,000 elephants must compete with over 1 billion people for space. Forests have been fragmented and have been replaced with farmland. This has led to a growing conflict between people and elephants. Since the farms disrupt migratory routes, the elephants would often wander through, trampling and eating much of the harvest. Villagers and farmers may take matters into their own hands, which has led to casualties on both sides. Some people have even resorted to poisoning entire herds. Another problem faced by Asian elephants is the increase in tourism. While this is beneficial to promote conservation, it can be a double-edged sword. In Southeast Asia, there is a growing epidemic in which elephant calves are taken from their herds and forced to join the industry, thus decimating an already fragile population. The ivory trade is also somewhat of a problem. Since only males have tusks, they are killed. This leaves entire populations without any breeding males, rendering them inviable.
That being said, many people are becoming increasingly aware of these issues. Countries around the world are calling for a ban on the trade which will hopefully curtail poaching. Meanwhile in Asia, people are recognizing the human-elephant conflict and are finding ways to fix it. Wildlife corridors have been created between some national parks in India, so that elephants can travel without coming into conflict with people. With all of these issues coming to light, many are joining the fight to save elephants and hopefully, we will enjoy their company for many generations to come.
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