Once commonly found across Africa and Asia, these gentle giants have experienced a significant decline in numbers since the 20th century, largely as a result of the illegal ivory trade. To mark World Elephant Day, we are taking a look at the three recognised species that still roam Earth today.
Image: Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo
African savanna elephants – or bush elephants – are the largest species of elephant on the planet, measuring up to 7.5m in length and weighing up to eight tons. They live mainly in the open grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa. Savanna elephants are one of two genetically different subspecies of African elephant, of which the African forest elephant is the other. One of the most noticeable differences between the two subspecies is that savanna elephants have tusks that curve outwards.
A nifty way to differentiate the African elephant from the Asian elephant is to take a look at their ears. The shape of African elephant ears is said to resemble the continent of Africa, which is handy, considering that's where they live!
Image: imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo
African forest elephants are smaller than African savanna elephants and they also have straighter tusks, which tend to point downwards compared to those of their opposing subspecies. As their name suggests, forest elephants live in the dense lowland rainforests of tropical Africa, which may be the reason why they eat a lot more leaves than they do grass. Growing up to 4m in length, forest elephants have much darker skin than savanna elephants.
Another way to tell the difference between an African elephant and an Asian elephant is the shape of their heads. African elephants have rather rounded heads, whereas Asian elephants have two lumps on their head, with a vertical line running between them, which is known as a twin-domed head. It's kind of like the humps of a bactrian camel!
Asian elephants live in a variety of habitats, such as dense forests and grasslands, across Southern and Southeast Asia. There are three local subspecies of Asian elephant: the Indian, Sri Lankan and Sumatran elephant. Asian elephants measure up to 6.4m in length and can weigh as much as six tons. Their ears are much smaller and more straight-edged than the large fan-like ears of an African elephant.
Another obvious way to identify whether you're looking at an African elephant or an Asian elephant is their tusks. Typically, only some male Asian elephants develop tusks, whereas both the male and female species of African elephants can grow them. Asian elephants also have a single ‘finger’ on the upper lip of their trunks, in comparison to African elephants, which have a second one on the bottom.
World Elephant Day is marked every year on the 12th of August. It was launched in 2012 to raise awareness of the trouble that wild elephants are facing. Devastatingly, due to habitat loss, poaching, human-elephant conflict, and mistreatment in captivity, elephant numbers are decreasing very rapidly.
Get involved! You can show your support for World Elephant Day by spreading awareness of these issues and encouraging the people around you to experience elephants in a non-exploitive way, in the most sustainable environments, where these giants can thrive under the right conservation and protection. For more information, visit www.worldelephantday.org
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