Home Photography Photofeature Elephants – The Largest Mammals On Earth

Elephants – The Largest Mammals On Earth

Elephants – The Largest Mammals On Earth

Bull Run
Bull Run
Photo: S.P. Nagendra.

This powerful image of a charging tusker was taken on the banks of the river Kabini, between Nagarahole and Bandipur. Bulls separate from the family group on reaching puberty and usually stay solitary. On occasion, they may associate with an older bull or other young bulls seasonally. Keeping migration routes open and safe is critical to the gene flows so intrinsic to the survival of Elephas maximus.

Elephant Family

Elephant Family Photo: Praveen P. Mohandas.

Elephants live in tightly-knit social groups and this impromptu wall of defence was probably a reaction to a threat perception from the photographer himself. One of the most advanced mammalian organisations, elephant herds comprise one or two adult females (possibly siblings or offspring of the older females) and their juvenile and sub-adult offspring. Survival wisdom (migratory paths, where to find water and food during a drought) is believed to be handed down from matriarch to matriarch.

Child Care

Child Care Photo: Praveen P. Mohandas.

Protection of calves is central to the success of species and mothers and ‘aunts’ in the elephant herd share this responsibility. With their long memories and emotional response to stress, elephants suffer terribly when a close family member is killed by poachers, or by wildlife managers who imagine that killing elephants can solve human-animal conflict.

The Wallowing Pond

The Wallowing Pond
Photo: Jagdeep Rajput.

Wallowing is central to elephant society. Not only is this behaviour part of their social ritual, but also helps prevent moisture loss. Wallowing also helps to regulate body temperature, particularly when the pachyderms must negotiate long walks in the open sun. Despite their large size, the fact is that elephants cannot release heat through their skin as effectively as many other animals because of their relatively low body size to skin surface area.

River of Elephants

River of Elephants Photo: S.P. Nagendra.

Elephants are large ranging animals that require huge, contiguous forest tracts for their survival, which leaves them extremely vulnerable to habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Scientists have observed that elephant herds show amazing fidelity for home ranges, returning unerringly to particular forest patches at the same time year after year. They exhibit such home range loyalties even after the forests they have used for hundreds of years are fragmented or degraded by humans and this is often a key reason for conflict. They seem to prefer fixed crossing points between forests, often across safe river beds.

The Mud Bath

The Mud Bath Photo: Praveen P. Mohandas.

Though elephants are referred to as thick-skinned animals (pachyderms), their skin is actually an extremely sensitive part of their anatomy. Dust baths are indulged in after a dip in a river or forest pool to protect their skin. Soil is sucked into the trunks and then generously sprayed or blown across the body. This probably ‘feels good’ and keeps many parasites at bay.

Tusker in musth

Tusker in musth Photo: Jagdeep Rajput.

Male elephants often undergo periodical paroxysms of excitement on attaining sexual maturity. Known as musth, this is a period where the testosterone levels may be up to 100 times higher than normal. At this stage the animals can become extremely aggressive. Secretions containing pheromones occur during this period, from the paired temporal glands located on the head between the lateral edge of the eye and the base of the ear. Some naturalists have suggested that they flap their ears more frequently to disperse this scent more effectively. At the height of musth, bulls also become urine incontinent, and will discharge urine continuously.

Doing What Comes Naturally

Doing what comes naturally Photo: Praveen P. Mohandas.

A female elephant becomes sexually mature at roughly 13 years. She now comes into her estrous cycle and will employ pheromonal and vocal communications to attract potential mates. Though coitus lasts only for a short duration, the ritual foreplay and coaxing of the female by the male is elaborate. Once fertilised the cow elephant will have a gestation period of 22 months and will nurse her young calf for roughly three years, during which she will not allow any male to mate with her.

Elephant at Sunset

Elephant at Sunset
Photo: Praveen P. Mohandas.

A solitary tusker negotiates the magnificent Ramganga river in the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Amongst the most threatened of large Indian mammals today, elephants fall victim to ivory poaching, which has drastically skewed sex ratios in many populations.

Toss the Lizard

Toss the Lizard
Photo: Jagdeep Rajput.

One female elephant in the Corbett Tiger Reserve became quite famous for her peculiar penchant to toss monitor lizards Varanus bengalensis, which was, of course, fatal for the latter. On numerous occasions she was observed carrying monitor lizards and using them like rag dolls – tossing and dropping them. The elephant’s trunk is extremely dexterous as it lacks bone and cartilage but has 100,000 muscles which enable it to pick up even tiny objects.

Striking Back

Striking Back Photo: Praveen P. Mohandas.

Puny humans should actually not be allowed to exercise such total control on animals as large and intelligent as elephants. And occasionally, elephants do remind humans of this fact. With roughly 3,500 captive elephants in India, the issue of ill-treatment by temples, circuses and zoos is becoming a major issue. Mahouts use brute force and beatings to subdue elephants, but when something snaps in the great beasts they extract their revenge, normally before they can be subdued (an euphemism for killing them).

Vicious Revenge

Vicious Revenge Photo: Jaideep Siddannavar.

First humans steal forests away from elephants. And when the elephants come out in search of food, or follow their ancient pathways, humans complain that the elephants have turned ‘rogue’. Factories, towns, farms, mines and hydroelectric projects are the key reason why elephants and humans are forced into conflict. This magnificent young bull was cut short in his prime when sugarcane farmers on the outskirts of Belgaum, Karnataka, poisoned him.

Elephant Strut

Elephant Strut
Photo: Praveen P. Mohandas.

The elephant's straight, column-like legs and large padded feet allow it to stand for very long periods of time without tiring. Tough, gelatinous material beneath the bones of its nearly rounded feet act as shock absorbers. While walking, the legs act as pendulums, with the hips and shoulders rising and falling while the feet are planted on the ground. Although the elephant starts this "run" at only eight kilometers per hour, it can reach a speed of up to 40 km./hour in the same gait. At this speed, most other four-legged creatures are well into a gallop, even accounting for leg length. Spring-like kinetics could explain the difference between the motion of elephants and other animals.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXI No. 2, April 2011.

 
 
 

Subscribe to our Magazines

Subscribe Now!
 
Please Login to comment