Standing about 10 feet (3 meters) tall and weighing as much as 6 tons, elephants are the largest land animals. They are famous for their intelligence as well as for their size and strength. People have long admired them – in the 1600's, the English poet John Donne called the elephant "Nature's great masterpiece" and "the only harmless great thing."
There are two kinds of elephants: African elephants, which live in parts of Africa south of the Sahara, and Asian elephants, which live in India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. And there are a number of differences between them.
African elephants are larger and have bigger ears and flatter heads than their Asian cousins, for example. The back of the Asian elephant is convex, or arched, while the African elephant has a dip behind the shoulders. And African bulls (males) and cows (females) both have well-developed tusks, which are actually enormous curving teeth. Asian bulls and cows have only short tusks, and many cows have none at all.
There are differences in temperament, too. Asian elephants have long been tamed by people and used as riding and work animals. In the past, they were used in battle. Today they are still used as work animals, mainly in logging -- an elephant can drag two tons and lift 600 pounds (270 kilograms) with its trunk and tusks. And Asian elephants are the elephants you see in the circus. African elephants, on the other hand, are wilder and are rarely tamed.
Despite these differences, wild Asian and African elephants live in much the same way. Most elephants travel in herds of ten to fifty individuals, roaming over a wide area in search of plants to eat and water for drinking and bathing. The herd is made up mostly of cows and young elephants, or calves. Adult males generally travel alone, and when two meet, they may fight.
An elephant eats constantly, consuming as much as 500 pounds (225 kilograms) of food a day. The animals can strip bark from trees with their tusks and even uproot trees to get at the tasty green leaves. In this way, herds of elephants help keep the African plains open and free of brush. They also use their great tusks to dig open water holes. This is helpful to the other grasslands animals.
An elephant herd is led by an experienced cow. This cow and the other older females, or matriarchs, teach the younger ones how to find food and water, what migration routes to take, and other important elephant knowledge. Calves live with the group as long as fourteen years, learning these skills.
The members of the herd are usually related, and they form a closely knit group. Mothers make sure their babies keep up as the herd travels, using their trunks and heads to nudge the little ones along. Other cows act as elephant aunts, helping to look out for the calves. If a calf is attacked or injured, the herd will gather around to defend or help it. The concern that elephants show for others of their kind is one of the traits that has endeared them to people.
Today these magnificent animals are in danger of disappearing forever.Part of the threat comes from the growth of civilization: Much of the elephants' natural habitat has been taken over by people for use as farm and grazing land. Even more serious, however, is the widespread slaughter of elephants by hunters. Most of the animals are killed for one reason -- their ivory tusks, which are valued for making jewelry and other items.
Now, however, people are taking action to save the elephants. The steps include new efforts to protect the animals from poachers and an international ban on ivory trade, which was adopted by many countries late in 1989. (Adapted from ‘Grolier Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia’)