1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Elephant

ELEPHANT, the designation of the two existing representatives of the Proboscidea, a sub-order of ungulate mammals, and also extended to include their more immediate extinct relatives. As the distinctive characteristics of the sub-order, and also of the single existing genus Elephas, are given in the article Proboscidea, it will suffice to point out how the two existing species are distinguished from one another.

The more specialized of the two species is the Indian or Asiatic elephant, Elephas maximus, specially characterized by the extreme complexity of the structure of its molar teeth, which are composed of a great number of tall and thin plates of enamel and dentine, with the intervals filled by cement (see Proboscidea, fig. 1). The average number of plates of the six successive molar teeth may be expressed by the “ridge-formula” 4, 8, 12, 12, 16, 24. The plates are compressed from before backwards, the anterior and posterior surfaces (as seen in the worn grinding face of the tooth) being nearly parallel. Ears of moderate size. Upper margin of the end of the proboscis developed into a distinct finger-like process, much longer than the lower margins, and the whole trunk uniformly tapering and smooth. Five nails on the fore-feet, and four (occasionally five) on the hind-feet.

The Asiatic elephant inhabits the forest-lands of India, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, Cochin China, Ceylon and Sumatra. Elephants from the last-named islands present some variations from those of the mainland, and have been separated under the names of E. zeylonicus and E. sumatranus, but they are not more than local races, and the Ceylon animal, which is generally tuskless, may be the typical E. maximus, in which case the Indian race will be E. maximus indicus. The appearance of the Asiatic elephant is familiar to all. In the wild state it is gregarious, associating in herds of ten, twenty or more individuals, and, though it may under certain circumstances become dangerous, it is generally inoffensive and even timid, fond of shade and solitude and the neighbourhood of water. The height of the male at the shoulder when full grown is usually from 8 to 10 ft., occasionally as much as 11, and possibly even more. The female is somewhat smaller.

The following epitome of the habits of the Asiatic elephants is extracted from Great and Small Game of India and Tibet, by R. Lydekker:—

Fig. 1.
Asiatic Elephant (Elephas maximus).

“The structure of the teeth is sufficient to indicate that the food consists chiefly of grass, leaves, succulent shoots and fruits; and this has been found by observation to be actually the case. In this respect the Asiatic species differs very widely from its African relative, whose nutriment is largely composed of boughs and roots. Another difference between the two animals is to be found in the great intolerance of the direct rays of the sun displayed by the Asiatic species, which never voluntarily exposes itself to their influence. Consequently, during the hot season in Upper India, and at all times except during the rains in the more southern districts, elephants keep much to the denser parts of the forests. In Southern India they delight in hill-forest, where the undergrowth is largely formed of bamboo, the tender shoots of which form a favourite delicacy; but during the rains they venture out to feed on the open grass tracts. Water is everywhere essential to their well-being; and no animals delight more thoroughly in a bath. Nor are they afraid to venture out of their depth, being excellent swimmers, and able, by means of their trunks, to breathe without difficulty when the entire body is submerged. The herds, which are led by females, appear in general to be family parties; and although commonly restricted to from thirty to fifty, may occasionally include as many as one hundred head. The old bulls are very generally solitary for a considerable portion of the year, but return to the herds during the pairing season. Some ‘rogue’ elephants—gunda of the natives—remain, however, permanently separated from the rest of their kind. All such solitary bulls, as their colloquial name indicates, are of a spiteful disposition; and it appears that with the majority the inducement to live apart is due to their partiality for cultivated crops, into which the more timid females are afraid to venture. ‘Must’ elephants are males in a condition of—probably sexual—excitement, when an abundant discharge of dark oily matter exudes from two pores in the forehead. In addition to various sounds produced at other times, an elephant when about to charge gives vent to a shrill loud ‘trumpet’; and on such occasions rushes on its adversary with its trunk safely rolled up out of danger, endeavouring either to pin him to the ground with its tusks (if a male tusker) or to trample him to death beneath its ponderous knees or feet.”

Exact information in regard to the period of gestation of the female is still lacking, the length of the period being given from eighteen to twenty-two months by different authorities. The native idea, which may be true, is that the shorter period occurs in the case of female and the longer in that of male calves. In India elephants seldom breed in captivity, though they do so more frequently in Burma and Siam; the domesticated stock is therefore replenished by fresh captures. Occasionally two calves are produced at a birth, although the normal number is one. Calves suckle with their mouths and not with their trunks. Unlike the African species, the Indian elephant charges with its trunk curled up, and consequently in silence.

Fig. 2.—Immature African Elephant (Elephas africanus).

As regards their present distribution in India, elephants are found along the foot of the Himalaya as far west as the valley of Dehra-Dun, where the winter temperature falls to a comparatively low point. A favourite haunt used to be the swamp of Azufghur, lying among the sal-forests to the northward of Meerut. In the great tract of forest between the Ganges and Kistna rivers they occur locally as far west as Bilaspur and Mandla; they are met with in the Western Ghats as far north as between latitude 17° and 18°, and are likewise found in the hill-forests of Mysore, as well as still farther south. In this part of the peninsula they ascend the hills to a considerable height, as they do in the Newara Eliya district of Ceylon, where they have been encountered at an elevation of over 7000 ft. There is evidence that about three centuries ago elephants wandered in the forests of Malwa and Nimar, while they survived to a later date in the Chanda district of the Central Provinces. At the comparatively remote epoch when the Deccan was a forest tract, they were probably also met with there, but the swamps of the Bengal Sundarbans appear unsuited to their habits.

Of tusks, the three longest specimens on record respectively measure 8 ft. 9 in., 8 ft. 2 in. and 8 ft.; their respective weights being 81, 80 and 90 £ . These are, however, by no means the heaviest—one, whose length is 7 ft. 33/8 in., weighing 102 ℔; while a second, of which the length is 7 ft. 31/4 in., scaled 971/2 ℔. Of the largest pair in the possession of the British Museum, which belonged to an elephant killed in 1866 by Colonel G. M. Payne in Madras, one tusk measures 6 ft. 8 in. in length, and weighs 773/4 ℔, the other being somewhat smaller. It should be added that some of these large tusks came from Ceylon; such tuskers being believed to be descended from mainland animals imported into the island. “White” elephants are partial or complete albinos, and are far from uncommon in Burma and Siam. Young Indian elephants are hairy, thus showing affinity with the mammoth.

The African elephant is a very different animal from its Asiatic cousin, both as regards structure and habits; and were it not for the existence of intermediate extinct species, might well be regarded as the representative of a distinct genus. Among its characteristics the following points are noticeable. The molar teeth are of coarse construction, with fewer and larger plates and thicker enamel; the ridge-formula being 3, 6, 7, 7, 8, 10; while the plates are not flattened, but thicker in the middle than at the edges, so that their worn grinding-surfaces are lozenge-shaped. Ears very large. The upper and lower margins of the end of the trunk form two nearly equal prehensile lips. Only three toes on the hind-foot. A very important distinction is to be found in the conformation of the trunk, which, as shown in fig. 2, looks as though composed of a number of segments, gradually decreasing in size from base to tip like the joints of a telescope, instead of tapering gradually and evenly from one extremity to the other. The females have relatively large tusks, which are essential in obtaining their food. Except where exterminated by human agency (and this has been accomplished to a deplorable extent), the African elephant is a native of the wooded districts of the whole of Africa south of the Sahara. It is hunted chiefly for the sake of the ivory of its immense tusks, of which it yields the principal source of supply to the European market, and the desire to obtain which is rapidly leading to the extermination of the species. In size the male African elephant often surpasses the Asiatic species, reaching nearly 12 ft. in some cases. The circumference of the fore-foot is half the height at the shoulder, a circumstance which enables sportsmen to estimate approximately the size of their quarry. A tusk in the British Museum measures 10 ft. 2 in. in length, with a basal girth of 24 in. and a weight of 2261/2 ℔; but a still longer, although lighter, tusk was brought to London in 1905.

Several local races of African elephant have been described, mainly distinguished from one another by the form and size of the ears, shape of the head, &c. The most interesting of these is the pigmy Congo race, E. africanus pumilio, named on the evidence of an immature specimen in the possession of C. Hagenbeck, the well-known animal-dealer of Hamburg, in 1905. According to Hagenbeck’s estimate, this elephant, which came from the French Congo, was about six years old at the time it came under scientific notice. Moreover, in the opinion of the same observer, it is in no wise an abnormally dwarfed or ill-grown representative of the normal type of African elephant, but a well-developed adolescent animal. In height it stood about the same as a young individual of the ordinary African elephant when about a year and a half old, the vertical measurement at the shoulder being only 4 ft., or merely a foot higher than a new-born Indian elephant. Hagenbeck’s estimate of its age was based on the presence of well-developed tusks, and the relative proportion of the fore and hind limbs, which are stated to show considerable differences in the case of the African elephant according to age. Nothing was stated as to the probability of an increase in the stature of the French Congo animal as it grows older; but even if we allow another foot, its height would be considerably less than half that of a large Central African bull of the ordinary elephant.

By Dr Paul Matschie several races of the African elephant have been described, mainly, as already mentioned, on certain differences in the shape of the ear. From the two West African races (E. a. cyclotis and E. a. oxyotis) the dwarf Congo elephant is stated to be distinguished by the shape of its ear; comparison in at least one instance having been made with an immature animal. The relatively small size of the ear is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the dwarf race. Further, the skin is stated to be much less rough, with fewer cracks, while a more important difference occurs in the trunk, which lacks the transverse ridges so distinctive of the ordinary African elephant, and thereby approximates to the Asiatic species.

If the differences in stature and form are constant, there can be no question as to the right of the dwarf Congo elephant to rank as a well-marked local race; the only point for consideration being whether it should not be called a species. The great interest in connexion with a dwarf West African race of elephant is in relation to the fossil pigmy elephants of the limestone fissures and caves of Malta and Cyprus. Although some of these elephants are believed not to have been larger than donkeys, the height of others may be estimated at from 4 to 5 ft., or practically the same as that of the dwarf Congo race. By their describers, the dwarf European elephants were regarded as distinct species, under the names of Elephas melitensis, E. mnaidriensis and E. cypriotes; but since their molar teeth are essentially miniatures of those of the African elephant, it has been suggested by later observers that these animals are nothing more than dwarf races of the latter. This view may receive some support from the occurrence of a dwarf form of the African elephant in the Congo; and if we regard the latter as a subspecies of Elephas africanus, it seems highly probable that a similar position will have to be assigned to the pigmy European fossil elephants. If, on the other hand, the dwarf Congo elephant be regarded as a species, then the Maltese and Cyprian elephants may have to be classed as races of Elephas pumilio; or, rather, E. pumilio will have to rank as a race of the Maltese species. In this connexion it is of interest to note that, both in the Mediterranean islands and in West Africa, dwarf elephants of the African type are accompanied by pigmy species of hippopotamus, although we have not yet evidence to show that in Africa the two animals occupy actually the same area. Still, the close relationship of the existing Liberian pigmy hippopotamus to the fossil Mediterranean species is significant, in relation to the foregoing observations on the elephant.

It may be added that fossil remains of the African elephant have been obtained from Spain, Sicily, Algeria and Egypt, in strata of the Pleistocene age. Some of the main differences in the habits of the African as distinct from those of the Asiatic elephant have been mentioned under the heading of the latter species. The most important of these are the greater tolerance by the African animal of sunlight, and the hard nature of its food, which consists chiefly of boughs and roots. The latter are dug up with the tusks; the left one being generally employed in this service, and thus becoming much more worn than its fellow.  (R. L.*)