The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


elephant, largest living land mammal, found in tropical regions of Africa and Asia. Elephants have massive bodies and heads, thick, pillarlike legs, and broad, short padded feet, with toes bearing heavy, hooflike nails. The gray skin is loose, tough, thick, and nearly hairless. The slender tail ends in a tuft of hair. The upper lip and nose are elongated into a flexible trunk, or proboscis, reaching nearly to the ground; this sensitive appendage is used for picking up food, feeding from trees and other sources, and drawing up water. Elephants drink by sucking water into the trunk and squirting it into the mouth; they also use the trunk to spray themselves with water and with dust. The trunk produces a variety of noises, including a loud trumpeting. African elephants also have been shown to use infrasonic frequencies (those below the range of human hearing) for communication. The large, thin, floppy ears provide an extensive cooling surface; the animal flaps its ears vigorously when it is overheated. The upper incisor teeth are elongated into tusks—highly valued for their ivory—which the animal uses for digging up roots and tubers. A gland between the eye and the ear periodically produces an oily substance called musth; during these periods the animal is in an excitable, dangerous condition, also called musth, meaning madness. Such a condition occurs more often in males than in females and is thought to be a state of sexual excitement.

Elephants are browsing animals, feeding on fruits, leaves, shoots, and tall grasses; they consume hundreds of pounds of food a day and drink up to 50 gal (190 liters) of water. They have no fixed living place, but travel about in herds of up to 100 animals, led by a young, strong male and including young bulls (males), cows (females), and calves. Old males are generally solitary or live in small groups. A rogue elephant is a solitary old male that has become violent and dangerous. During the mating season, elephant pairs may live away from the herd for a few weeks. A single calf is born after a gestation of 18 to 22 months and is nursed for 5 years. Elephants reach maturity at between 15 and 25 years of age; their lifespan is usually 60 or 70 years. Elephants walk at a pace of about 4 mi (6.4 km) per hr, but can charge at speeds of 30 mi (48 km) per hr. They cannot jump and so cannot pass barriers too wide or too high to step over; they swim well, however.

Indian and African Elephants

There are at least two species: the Indian elephant, Elephas maximus, found in India and SE Asia, and the African elephant, Loxodonta africana, found in Africa S of the Sahara. Recent evidence appears to indicate that African forest elephants are a genetically distinct, physically smaller species, L. cyclotis, from the larger African elephants found on the savannas. The largest African bull elephants may reach a shoulder height of 13 ft (4 m) and weigh 6 to 8 tons (5,400–7,200 kg). Their tusks are more than 10 ft (3 m) long and weigh up to 200 lbs (90 kg) each. Females are somewhat smaller and have more slender tusks. African elephants have enormous ears, measuring up to 42 in. (107 cm) in diameter. The long, conspicuously wrinkled trunk terminates in two fleshy, fingerlike protuberances, used for handling objects. African forest elephants are several feet shorter and weigh about half as much as savanna elephants. The Indian bull elephant reaches about 9 ft (2.7 m) in shoulder height and weighs about 3.5 tons (3200 kg); its tusks are up to 6 ft (180 cm) long. The female of this species has no tusks. The ears of the Indian elephant are much smaller than in the African species, and the trunk somewhat shorter and smoother, ending in a single protuberance.

Elephants and Humans

Elephants are regarded as among the most intelligent of mammals and can be trained to work and to perform. Indian elephants are extensively used as beasts of burden, especially in teak forests, where they carry logs with their trunks. They are not considered truly domesticated as they do not breed well in captivity; young animals are captured from the wild. Training and handling take skill, as elephants have complex emotions and vary individually in temperament. Ancient Indian kings used elephants in battle at least as early as the 4th cent. BC African elephants are often said to be less tractable, but they too were formerly used for work, as well as for warfare. Hannibal's army crossed the Alps using African elephants, which were at that time probably found in the Atlas Mts. Elephants seen in zoos and circuses are usually of the Indian species, although the famous Jumbo, who toured the United States in the late 19th cent. giving rides to children, was an African elephant. In Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), so-called white elephants have long been revered; these animals are not truly white but have unusual light-colored skin and other characteristics. Elephants have been extensively hunted for food and for ivory, and their numbers are now greatly reduced. Despite protections in certain areas and a treaty banning the international ivory trade, elephant poaching remains a severe problem, due especially to surging demand from China in the early 21st cent.


Elephants are the only living representatives of their order, which was once widespread over most of the world; it included the mammoth and the mastodon. Elephants are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Proboscidae, family Elephantidae.


See I. Douglas-Hamilton and O. Douglas-Hamilton, Among the Elephants (1978); R. Sukamar, The Asian Elephant (1989); C. Bosman, Elephants of Africa (1989); S. Alexander, The Astonishing Elephant (2000).

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