Big Problems for the Biggest Land Animal: the Elephant

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I’ve got a big story today. How big? As big as the biggest land animal in the world – the elephant.

 

You may think that all elephants look alike but look closely and you’ll see that there are some differences between African and Asian elephants. The African elephant is the largest elephant species. Its trunk alone grows up to 5 feet long and weighs 300 pounds. A mature male African elephant may reach a height of 14 feet and weigh an average of 6 to 7 tons. Females are slightly smaller, but still incredibly large. African elephants are the heaviest land mammals on earth and the second tallest (giraffes take the top spot).

African elephants have large ears that almost resemble the shape of Africa. Their skin is wrinkly and dark gray. Both males and females have tusks that they use to scrape bark off trees or dig for food.

The Asian elephant – the elephant species that we have at the Fort Worth Zoo – is slightly smaller than the African elephant, but still massive. It stands 12 to 13 feet tall and weighs 5 to 6 tons. Like the African species, female Asian elephants are smaller than males. This is called sexual dimorphism when there are differences in the appearance of males and females that make them easy to tell apart.

Asian elephants have smaller, rounded ears compared to African elephants. Their skin is smoother than the African species and the face and trunk can be freckled. Only some female Asian elephants have visible tusks. Other females may have shorter tusks called “tushes” that are hidden under their upper lips. Most male Asian elephants have tusks.

Can you decipher which elephant is African and which is Asian?

Elephants live in a variety of habitats from forests to grasslands to deserts. They spend most of their time roaming great distances in search of food and water. Elephants are herbivores that munch on grass, roots, fruit, and bark. In a single day, an elephant may eat up to 300 pounds of food.

The biggest job that a female elephant will ever take on is that of a mother. Elephant pregnancies last 20 to 22 months—that’s almost two years! A newborn elephant is already an average of 3 feet tall and weighs 250 pounds. It will remain under its mother’s care for 14 years. At that age, male elephants (called bulls) separate from the herd. Females (called cows) remain with the same herd their entire lives.

These huge creatures are tough, but they are not indestructible. Poaching and Habitat alteration have put African and Asian elephants at risk for extinction. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species lists the African elephant as vulnerable and the Asian elephant as endangered.

Elephant poaching for ivory – the material that elephant tusks are made of – was rampant in the 1980s. Intending to help declining elephant populations, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the sale of ivory in 1989. Initially, this helped elephants, but elephant poaching continued to be a problem. Last year, 2011, was the most catastrophic year for elephants since the ivory sale ban. As many as 3,000 elephants are estimated to have been illegally killed for their ivory

Ivory isn’t the only reason elephants are poached. Sometimes elephants are also killed for harming crops. People depend on crops to eat and make a living. When elephants eat or trample these crops, local farmers become angry and kill elephants in an effort to protect their crops.

The elephant’s biggest threat is habitat alteration. Asian elephants live in areas of the world that are the most densely populated. Human populations in these areas are also growing the fastest. That means humans are spreading out and taking over land that used to be elephant territory.

Across the world, there is no doubt that elephants are in trouble. It’s a big problem to tackle, but conservationists are up to the challenge!

The Fort Worth Zoo’s executive director, Michael Fouraker, was a founding member of the International Elephant Foundation (IEF) and still serves on the board of directors today. The first IEF meeting was held at the Fort Worth Zoo in 1998 when representatives from zoos, circuses, and other institutions gathered to discuss the growing elephant problem. Since then, IEF has been on a mission to support and manage elephant conservation programs.

Sumatra, an island that is part of Indonesia in the South Pacific, is home to a dwindling elephant population. A combination of habitat alteration and human conflict has put Sumatran elephants in grave danger. In January 2012, IUCN upgraded the Sumatran elephant from an endangered listing to critically endangered. Sumatran elephants have a tough road ahead because most of their habitats are not in protected areas. In the past 25 years, an estimated two-thirds of Sumatra’s lowland forests – typical elephant habitat – have been lost to deforestation.

In an effort to protect the critically endangered species, 700 elephants were relocated to government-funded elephant training centers in Sumatra. However, the local people in charge of caring for the elephants at these facilities did not have sufficient knowledge or experience in dealing with elephants. As a result, many elephants died.

One of IEF’s programs involved sending veterinarians and other elephant experts to the centers to help educate the local staff. Once in Sumatra, the IEF representatives discovered that many villagers saw the elephants as nuisances rather than resources. Because of these negative views, mahouts (elephant caretakers) did not feel motivated to care for the elephants properly.

IEF improved the look of the facilities to allow for better elephant care and enhanced public perception. Each facility also got a new name: Elephant Conservation Center. Mahouts found a purpose for their elephant’s thanks to the creation of Conservation Response Units (CRUs). CRUs patrol areas where human-elephant conflict and poaching have been common in the past. Mahouts participate by riding on their elephants’ backs during patrols. These patrols protect wild elephants and raise awareness about elephant conservation in communities.

That’s just one of the ways IEF is working to save elephants. These endangered mammals may live thousands of miles away from you, but there are ways for you to help elephant conservation no matter where you call home. Here are some ideas:

  • Visit your local zoo and learn about the elephants on exhibit. Are the elephants Asian or African? Look for clues in the elephants’ appearance such as size, color, and ear shape to see if you can figure out which elephant species is at the zoo.
  • Support conservation groups like the International Elephant Foundation (IEF) so they can help promote elephant education and conservation in countries where wild elephants live.
  • Sponsor a mahout through IEF. These “elephant ambassadors” are an important key in educating people living within elephant habitats about the importance of elephants.

Have you been on an outdoor adventure lately? Don’t forget to bring along Sam on the Go and snap some pictures so I can share the fun with other explorers. Sam’s Inbox (safarisam@fortworthzoo.org) is always open, waiting for stories and pictures of what you’re doing out in the world to conserve.

Until next time … happy exploring!

 

VOCABULARY

Awareness: (noun) the state of being conscious of something or having knowledge about something
Bull: (noun) a male elephant
Catastrophic: (adjective) disastrous, destructive
Common: (adjective) average, ordinary
Cow: (noun) a female elephant
Critically endangered: (noun) the highest level of risk awarded to an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, critically endangered species population numbers have decreased or will decrease by 80 percent within 3 generations
Decipher: (verb) to figure out or understand
Deforestation: (noun) the act of clearing forests or trees from an area
Densely: (adverb) closely packed together
Discuss: (verb) to talk about with several other people
Dwindling: (adjective) shrinking, declining
Endangered: (adjective) at risk for extinction
Enhance: (verb) to make better or improve
Expert: (noun) someone who is very knowledgeable about a certain topic
Extinction: (noun) a coming to an end or dying out
Grave: (adjective) serious
Habitat alteration: (noun) change that takes place in an animal’s living space caused by natural or human processes
Herbivore: (noun) an animal that feeds primarily on grass and other plants
Improve: (verb) to make better
Indestructible: (adjective) not able to be damaged or destroyed
Initially: (adverb) firstly
Intend: (verb) to have a specific plan in mind for something to be done
Interfere: (verb) to disrupt or come into opposition
Ivory: (noun) a hard, bone-like material found in elephant tusks and rhino horns that is widely prized, especially in Asia, where it is used in jewelry and medicines
Local: (adjective) related to a certain area or region
Mahout: (noun) an elephant caretaker
Mammal: (noun) a warm-blooded animal with a backbone that breathes air and at some point in its life has hair
Manage: (verb) to take charge or care of
Massive: (adjective) huge, extremely large
Mature: (adjective) developed to a full-grown state
Nuisance: (noun) a pest
Patrol: (verb) to pass along a certain route or area in order to protect or keep order
Perception: (noun) an understanding or attitude about something brought about by taking in clues from the senses
Poach: (verb) to illegally enter someone’s property to hunt or steal animals without permission or without a license
Poaching: (noun) the illegal practice of entering someone’s property to hunt or steal animals without permission or without a license
Properly: (adverb) correctly
Rampant: (adjective) violent, raging, furious
Relocate: (verb) to move to a different location
Resemble: (verb) to look similar or alike
Resource: (noun) an available supply or something (food, water, etc.) that can be drawn on when needed
Roam: (verb) to wander
Sexual dimorphism: (noun) the condition of males and females being noticeably different in physical appearance
Slightly: (adverb) small in amount
Species: (noun) a group of individuals having some common characteristics or qualities
Sufficient: (adjective) enough
Ton: (noun) a unit of weight equaling 2,000 pounds
Visible: (adjective) able to be seen with the naked eye
Vulnerable: (adjective) easily targeted, likely to be attacked, unprotected, exposed

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