Shades of Gray
Call of the Wild – by Val Maass
A closer look at African and Asian elephants
African elephants (right) have smooth foreheads and larger ears that typically reach below their necks; while Asian elephants (below) have double-domed heads and short ears.
habitat loss, especially in Africa—has led to their dwindling populations. Living throughout many of its sub-Saharan countries, the continent’s total population went from 1.3 million in the late 1970s to somewhere between 470,000 and 690,000 as recently as 2007. Although wild elephants are officially “protected” worldwide, some illegal poaching continues. Fortunately, ongoing conservation efforts in both Africa and Asia— such as Africa’s wildlife preserves, Thailand’s rehabilitative elephant camps, and orphanages in both native continents—continue to protect them further.
he broad brow of the colossus, its trunk, tusks, tower, huge hindquarters, and pillar-like legs stood out, astonishing and awesome against the starry sky.” So wrote French playwright Victor Hugo of an elephant in Les Miserables, while British poet John Donne dubbed it “Nature’s great masterpiece.” And millenniums before research revealed that elephants’ intellectual and emotional capacity rivals our own, Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized it as “the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind.” Even the sweet-natured protagonists of Horton Hears a Who and The Story of Babar reflect the universal reverence for these gentle giants.
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First domesticated in India centuries ago, elephants historically served as beasts of burden, and as mounts in both ceremonial occasions and war—making them symbols of strength, wisdom, and status. They also have spiritual importance to the Hindu religion, in which Ganesha—the god of good fortune and remover of obstacles—has the head of an elephant, and the “blessing” of a temple elephant is considered priceless. Reflecting its elite status, the Indian Buddhist scholar Kautiliya wrote that “a king who always cares for the elephants like his own sons is always victorious and will enjoy the friendship of the celestial world after death.” By comparison, African elephants have been less frequently domesticated and more often involved in conflicts with humans—likely due to their sensitive, often temperamental nature. One Zimbabwean farmer’s assertion (quoted by American nature writer, Edward R. Ricciuti)—“When we are hungry, elephants are food. When we are full, elephants are beautiful”—reflects many Africans’ more pragmatic attitude towards these great creatures. Throughout history, elephants have been sought for their coveted ivory tusks, which—combined with significant
Dispatches • Winter 2010
If it looks and walks like an elephant, it’s still an elephant. But outside of their natural habitats, the two distinct species—African (Bush and Savannah subspecies) and Asian (aka Indian) elephants—have unique characteristics. For instance, African males are significantly larger, weighing 5.5-7 tons and reaching up to 13 feet at the shoulder (females are smaller), while their Asian counterparts usually weigh 3.5-5.5 tons and reach 7-12 feet. African species’ ears are also noticeably larger—an adaptation attributed to their greater bulk and warmer natural climate. And in an amazing coincidence, their ears are shaped much like their native Africa, while the Asians elephants’ ears mirror the subcontinent of India—where approximately 10% of the total elephant population is found. Whatever size or shape, elephants’ paper-thin ears are effective fans against the heat. For the world’s largest land mammal, species-related differences go beyond size—from the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes! While African elephants have a smooth forehead, concave back, brownish-gray color, and 21 pairs of ribs, their Asian cousins have a “doubledomed” head, convex back, lighter gray pigment, additional toenail on each foot, and just 19 pairs of ribs. Both male and female African elephants have tusks, while only Asian bulls possess these valuable incisors. And when it comes to their trunk, the former has two “fingers” at the end, compared to the latter’s single protrusion. In any case, elephants’ most familiar feature is also the most used—to breathe, smell, drink, feed, wash, communicate, touch, play, protect their young, and even manipulate tools. From its great size and greater strength, to its allegedly long memory and actual long trunk, to its tough skin and sensitive, intelligent nature, the elephant is known and loved for many qualities. But the most important thing to know is that these truly incomparable creatures are worth seeing and even more worth saving.