Elephants are a ‘keystone’ species meaning they support the healthy functioning of ecosystems and even the survival of other species. Due to their large size and energy requirements, elephants have a big impact on their environment.
Elephants are quite destructive feeders and push over trees to access green leaves on the crown. They also debark trees to get at the inner cambium layer, which contains the water and nutrients being transported up and down the tree stem. This cropping of trees prevents them reaching a forest climax and helps maintain the bushveld habitat, while bush fires keep the tree-grass balance.
If debarking encircles the trunk, the tree will die. This apparent wasteful action has a positive ecological repercussion. Fallen trees provide browse at ground level to smaller animals, and create microhabitats for ground creatures like rodents, reptiles, small mammals, and birds. Nutrients from these trees are also recycled back into the soil through decay, ash after fires, or by termites feeding on the wood.
Elephants live in matriarchal family groups of related females, with their offspring, led by the oldest cow, the matriarch. The bulls leave the herds once they reach puberty (at around 12 to 14 years old) to live alone or in small bachelor groups. Older bulls may be accompanied by a few younger ones known as ‘askaris’. The younger bulls may learn social skills from the older bull while affording him protection.
Although elephant bulls reach puberty around 12 years of age, they only get their first chance to mate from about 25 years, but usually closer to 35. Bulls must enter a state of elevated testosterone, or ‘musth’, to mate. During this period, they become aggressive and impulsively travel long distances, away from areas where there may be cows they are related to. Along the way, they emit infrasonic calls to attract oestrus cows, and they challenge any bull they encounter.
In contrast to the bulls, cows may mate and conceive from as young as 8 years old. The first mating may be fairly traumatic for a young female elephant due to the large size difference between her, weighing about 1,2t, and the mature musth bull, probably weighing around 5 to 6t, that mounts her.
Elephants are longed-lived animals and gain knowledge through experience and learning. In a herd, the matriarch, being the oldest, has the broadest cultural knowledge and uses this to guide the others. Migratory routes are passed down through the generations, and the matriarch leads her herd to traditional sources of food and water during different seasons and times of hardship.
The ears of an African elephant are enormous, with a bull’s ears weighing up to 20kg each. The ears play a vital role in thermoregulation (body temperature control). Flapping them acts as a fan, but also cools the blood flowing through the ears’ vessels that run close to their surface. An elephant can pump all of its blood through its ears every 20 minutes! On cooler days, elephants hold their ears close to their bodies to conserve the heat in the vessels.
It has been such a privilege to spend some time at reasonably close courters with these highly-social creatures of habit. Got to love eles!
Words and photos by: Sabastion Wayne
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