Interesting facts about growing up as an African elephant

A group of elephants with a baby elephant.

Like a mischievous little boy, the elephant calf wandered away from its herd and began strolling along the edge of an African water channel.

Ignoring the warning trumpet from a nearby adult, the independent little calf suddenly slipped into deep water! 

But three anxious elephant cows rushed to the rescue. 

Two of them waded in and managed to lift the panicky baby with their tusks until two others stationed on the bank could pull him to safety.

Once her baby was safe, mother elephant carefully examined the whimpering, water-blowing little delinquent with her trunk, and, finding no damage, used it also to deliver a mighty wallop of discipline. 

Had any human mother witnessed the incident, she surely would have felt a common bond with that angry pachydermatous mother, who then chased the little rascal away from the water, loudly venting her motherly concern.

Similar to a human child, the baby elephant learns from such experiences and parental teaching. 

In fact, a young elephant is dependent on adult guidance for at least ten years, a length of time highly unusual in the animal world. 

Accounting for this may be the fact that, like human infants, an elephant is born with its brain only about a third of grown-up size. 

Hence, much of its behavior is developed as it grows, rather than primarily by instinct, as with most animals.

A young elephant’s parents may have had a “courtship” and a “honeymoon” that lasted for several months. 

When the female eventually becomes pregnant, she loses interest in her mate. 

Later, she seeks the company of another cow, who goes off with her to a secluded spot and stands by protectively while the infant is being born. 

Pregnancy has lasted up to twenty-two months. 

And no wonder! 

The baby that comes forth is all of three feet (1 meter) high and weighs about 200 pounds (90 kilos)!

The Amazing Trunk

A baby elephant with it's trunk in the mouth.

It takes the better part of a calf’s first year to learn how to use its most valuable asset—the trunk.

The sight of a clumsy baby tripping over its own ungainly nose extension, stepping on it or otherwise awkwardly twisting and turning it, can make for some hilarious moments.

A baby elephant does not suck from mother’s breasts with its trunk, but, rather, lets it curl back over its head and nurses by mouth.

But in three or four years, when mother can no longer stand the jabs of her juvenile’s sprouting tusks, she weans the thirsty youth forcibly.

And comedy may again ensue when the baby tusker sticks its trunk into its own mouth in apparent desperation, acting like a thumb-sucking child.

As the little one gets older, its trunk may even intrude into an adult’s mouth to investigate the food being chewed there.

Though an adult’s trunk may weigh about 300 pounds (135 kilos), the thousands of muscles along its six-foot (2-meter) length and flexible “fingers” at the tip make it very versatile indeed.

It houses a highly sensitive nose, and, due to the animal’s very limited hearing and sight, the trunk is always moving around, sniffing out the environment like a sensitive antenna, and feeling for shape, texture and temperature.

An extended trunk is also a typical greeting among elephants in what appears to be a measured motion of affection.

When humans gain their trust, an extended trunk is accepted as a sign of mutual confidence.

But this combination nose and upper lip by no means serves only for delicate duties.

It is also a powerful tool, scooping up sand loosened by tusks and feet when the elephant is digging for water, plucking grass and beating dirt from the roots, reaching into trees for fruit or tearing off bark, dousing the body with water or dusting it with dirt for cooling, and, together with the tusks, lifting objects weighing as much as a ton.

It is even used as a snorkel when the elephant wades in deep water.

By means of its hoselike trunk an elephant can suck up as much as a gallon and a half (6 liters) of water for spraying or drinking.

An elephant spraying water with it's trunk.

Drinking merely requires squirting the water into its mouth, where it can be heard gurgling stomachward.

In this way up to 50 gallons (190 liters) or more of water may be consumed in a day, along with the 500 to 600 pounds (some 225 to 270 kilos) of food that the versatile trunk also stuffs into its owner’s mouth.

Hence, if the trunk becomes damaged, as in a poacher’s snare, the animal has a real survival problem.

Some elephants with such a handicap have been seen eating grass on their knees.

Enormous Teeth and Tusks

Chewing these immense amounts of food calls for something unusual in the way of teeth.

Strangely, only one tooth on each side of each jaw—a total of four—is in use at any one time.

But what teeth they are!

They may weigh eight or nine pounds (4 kilos) apiece and be at least a foot (30 centimeters) long.

In a lifetime, six sets of these giant molars are used up, in addition to the first milk teeth.

As if on a conveyor belt, the huge grinders move into position, the new tooth pushing out the worn stump.

The last set comes in when elephants are about forty years old.

When these finally wear down, the great creature loses his chewing power and eventually dies, apparently from a form of malnutrition, at sixty or seventy years of age.

However, elephants are most noted for their other, far more visible, “teeth.”

You might say that they have the world’s most extreme case of protruding teeth, since their great tusks are actually the upper front incisors.

An elephant with it's long tusks.

They are the longest and heaviest teeth of any living animal.

Since they continue to grow all through the elephant’s life, it has been estimated that their length could reach as much as sixteen feet (5 meters) in the female and twenty feet (6 meters) in the male.

But these protruding “teeth” take quite a pounding as they dig up soil in quest of salt or food and water, lift heavy weights, or are used to fight for the attention of a comely cow.

Invariably, one tusk bears the marks of more wear and may even be shorter due to chipping and breaking.

We might, therefore, think of a right- or left-“handed” elephant.

Becoming an adult male elephant

A boy elephant.

As young male elephants get older, they do not become fearless protectors of the herd, as you might be inclined to think.

Instead, the young bulls generally remain only until they begin to show signs of asserting their “masculinity” in some obstreperous manner.

When this occurs, usually at around ten to thirteen years of age, the herd’s females react by forcibly ejecting the youthful upstarts.

The young bulls then go off into a somewhat bachelor-type existence, though they may congregate in smaller bull herds.

Mingling with cows comes only when they have “amorous” intentions toward the ones ready to mate.

As you may have guessed, main herds are largely a matriarchal society, usually led by a cow related to every other member of the herd as mother, sister or aunt.

The strong bond between the cows cements the herds and makes for survival of the young.

When an African elephant reaches full growth, it is impressive indeed, the world’s largest living land animal.

African bulls stand an average of over eleven feet (3 1⁄2 meters) high at the shoulder and weigh about seven tons.

Death of an elephant

Do so-called “elephant cemeteries” really exist?

Well, elephants do seem to have an interest in the bones and tusks of a dead comrade.

To test out this curious behavior, carcasses were placed in the vicinity of a browsing herd.

When they caught the scent, the beasts approached with an industrious enthusiasm, carefully surveying the remains with their trunks.

Some observers have even noted attempts by the elephants to remove the tusks, and others have reported their actually carrying bones for distances of up to half a mile (1 kilometer) from the carcass.

But there have been no recent confirmations of “elephant cemeteries” where aging animals are said to die in secret.

In fact, the foregoing would seem to indicate just the opposite, a scattering of bones and tusks, rather than a gathering of them to one place.

In one sad case some time ago, a newborn calf had died.

A game warden saw its mother carrying the dead baby on her tusks for about three days, with her trunk draped over the limp form to hold it in place.

Later the mother was seen alone, at a tree, not eating, and charging anyone who came near.

When she finally left after some days, the warden found that the cow had scraped a small grave under that tree and buried the little body there.