Indian Elephant standing in a river.
The endangered Indian Elephant is one of four subspecies of the Asian Elephant (the others being the Sri Lankan, Borneo and Sumatran elephants). Its scientific name is Elephas maximus indicus. Although the largest proportion of its population currently lives in India, sizeable societies of Indian Elephants can be found in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Burma, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand, amongst other locations. Today, there are only approximately 15 000 to 20 000 of these animals in the world. Elephant herds are made up only of adult females and their young, led by the oldest and strongest matriarch. Males travel in smaller male pods or alone. Elephants are known the world over for their extreme intelligence and even insight when it comes to dealing with one another as well as with other humans. The Indian Elephant usually opts for open stretches of grassland, which is not too densely vegetated, but has sufficient food to sustain their hefty appetites. However, because they tend to roam by nature, they frequently enter the lush, moist jungles and forests found throughout Asia, partaking of the ample greenery and water. Still, they avoid the large jungles with completely enclosing canopies. This animal is large and eats huge amounts of foliage every day. For this reason, they need sizeable habitats in which to roam, feed and mate. They usually have a route that may take up to a decade to complete, before they again begin their journey along the same course. This is problematic because most of these routes have been destroyed or intercepted by human developments. They are herbivorous, and ideally feed on grass and bushes. They will also include branches, tree leaves, bark and roots in their diet. Unfortunately, they have also displayed a distinct preference for farmers’ crops.
The elephant is the largest terrestrial animal still in existence. This particular subspecies measures approximately 6.2 metres in length and about three metres at shoulder height. It is differentiated from the African Elephant in several clear characteristics. The Indian Elephant is generally hairier, smaller and with a flat or rounded back (as opposed to being concave) when compared to the African Elephant. The female Indian Elephants do not have tusks. One of the most obvious distinctions is the shape of the Indian Elephant’s head, as it is characterised by a heart shape when seen from the front (that is, it is indented in the centre of the forehead). In addition, the Asian Elephant and all of its subspecies display smaller ears, broader skulls and larger trunks with smaller abdomens (making them appear thinner).
Most Indian Elephants live in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghaiaya and the jungles of Myanmar. There are reserves and sanctuaries for these magnificent beasts situated throughout India, which aim at protecting these resources and preserving their population numbers. However, even these sanctuaries are currently under threat due to an ever-increasing lack of space as a result of industrial, residential and commercial development.
Interestingly, Indian Elephants are social animals, and have set out many laws and accepted norms within their species. These include mating rituals, mourning rituals, what to do in the case of floods and droughts, and stored memories regarding abundant feeding places.
Indian Elephants (as with the other Asian sub-species) are endangered mainly by the fact that they experience frequent encounters with human beings. They threaten the crops and property of these people, who survive off the produce of their land. As a result, hundreds of elephants die at the hands of rural folk every year. However, their survival translates to an increased biodiversity within their habitat and is of paramount importance.
The Indian Elephant has played an important role in the myths and legends of India as well as in its religions and religious festivals. They symbolise prosperity and fertility in many of the religious divisions and are, therefore, often displayed in paintings and portraits within people’s homes. In addition, they have long been used in the workforce for their impressive strength as well as their ability to traverse terrain that machinery and other animals are not able to conquer. Using elephants to carry and load timber has been a habit in these cultures for some four millennia. Today, they represent the rich and intricate heritage of India.