Elephant Protocols, Manuals, and Proceedings

Practical Elephant Management:
A Handbook for Mahouts

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Elephant Welfare Association
for contact details regarding publication see Title Page



Elephant Facts
Significance of Various Internal and External Organs

Evolutionary History and Sub-Species


Introduction to Elephants - some general facts

Dr. Jacob V. Cheeran

Elephants have always been fascinating to human beings because of their various peculiarities. Listed below are some interesting facts about elephants.

  • Elephants belong to the family Proboscidae. In India, elephants are found in South India, North-eastern India and Himalayan valleys and Orissa.
  • Asian elephants are of five strains and they are Indian, Burmese, Ceylonese, Sumatran and Malaysian.
  • An Asian cow elephant weighs 2.5 - 3.5 tonnes and a bull weighs 3.5 to 5 tonnes.
  • Bull elephants without tusks are called 'makhnas'.
  • Size of the neck is not proportionate to that of the head and so elephants have short necks to balance their huge head.
  • The elephant is one among a few animals that use tools in their day-to-day lives. A few examples of such animals are discussed. A species of vulture uses a stone to break ostrich eggs. Some otters found in the Californian seas, use a stone to break open clam shells. A woodpecker sometimes uses a stick to stir insects hiding in a hole. Monkeys use a blade of grass to draw out ants from a hole. An elephant uses a twig to scratch itself and can learn to manipulate a variety of objects, to carry out a variety of activities.
  • Elephants have nails rather than hooves. Most of the elephants have 18 nails, 5 in each of the front legs and 4 in each of the hind legs and very rarely 20 nails (5 nails each, on the hind and fore legs). The foot pad has a thick fat cushion, to provide a good grip, while walking over marshy and slushy grounds, as well as on rocks.
  • It is possible to measure the height of an elephant, by measuring the circumference of the front foot. Twice the circumference, gives the approximate height.
  • The upper ridge of the ear, starts folding inwards, from the age of 10 and folds about an inch, in 20 years. An elephant with a 1" fold on its ear, is considered to be 30-35 years of age, approximately. There are however, many exceptions to this rule.
  • In the absence of a weigh bridge, the following formulae can be applied, to weigh an elephant
  • W = 12.8 (g+ng)-42811. W = 12.8 (g+ng)-4281
  • W = Weight in Kg; g = girth (Chest circumference just behind the forelimb, in cms); ng = neck girth (in cms)
  • W = l x g2 x 1.252. W = l x g2 x 1.25
  • 300
  • W = Weight in Pounds; l = length (Anterior tip of the shoulder to point of tip, in inches); g = girth (in inches)
  • Elephants love spending lots of time in the water and can swim long distances. They also love wallowing in the marsh.
  • Elephants travel extensively, walking long distances in the wild, in search of food, shade, minerals and water. Since they have an enormous food requirement, they have to travel constantly to look for fodder sources. They do not stay confined to a single place for a long time which avoids habitat destruction.
  • They walk at a slow pace of 4km/hr. Elephant walk has been made into a music, (in the film Hatari) which is popular all over the world.
  • Elephants feed on all three tiers of plant life i.e., lower (grass), middle (bush), and upper (canopy) tiers.
  • Elephants have very clean feeding habits. While grazing, they pull out a bunch of grass and dust the mud and dirt against their legs before eating it.
  • Elephants drink 200-255 litres of water a day. I.e., 50-60 litres at a time, 3-4 times a day. A trunkful can retain 6-7 litres or even as much as 10 litres.
  • Elephants can run short distances quite quickly (25 Km/hr for short distances), or 30-40 kms/hr, according to reports from Mudumalai Elephant Camp, in Tamil Nadu. Even with hobbles they can hop very fast, but cannot gallop like horses or run like cattle.
  • Elephants can perceive sound frequencies inaudible to the human ear. Frequencies below the normal audible range are called infrasonic waves and those above the normal audible range are called ultra sonic waves. Examples of infrasonic waves are thunder, earthquakes etc. Elephants sometimes communicate with each other through infrasonic waves. This was discovered by Catherine Payne in Africa. The region between the frontal projection and the base of the trunk, produces vibrations. A simple experiment to demonstrate this fact can be done, by submerging (half way, to the middle of head) the elephant in water, facing the current and tickling the frontal area. The vibrations produced, can be seen as ripples, in the water. In an African savannah, elephants can perceive thunder several miles away and will move towards that direction to find the rain. Elephants have several kinds of communications between them. They are provided with large ears so that they can receive as many of these frequencies, as possible.
  • An elephant?s eye sight being very poor, it relies very much on its sense of smell. Elephants can recognise people by their sense of smell, even after several years.
  • In Kerala, there is a misconception that, elephants fan their ears because they appreciate the rhythm of the Panchavadyam, a musical symphony. Although it makes a nice story, this is not true. Elephants fan their ears, to cool their body. Sweating, in other species such as man, helps maintain suitable body temperature. Since elephants have few sweat glands, they depend on their ears to regulate their body temperature. The ear is an important organ in removing heat. The blood from the various parts of the body is transported to the ear where they are cooled due to its fanning motion. This cooled blood, then flows back into the various parts of the body, thus bringing down the body temperature. It is observed that there is a difference of 1 degree centigrade in the temperature, of arterial and venous blood of the ear.
  • The normal body temperature of the elephant is 96.6 OF, ( 36.9 OC)
  • The skull has several sinuses and so the head is not as heavy as it may appear.
  • The elephant has only two pairs of teeth, at a time and they are replaced 5 times during its lifetime. The number of ridges on the teeth increase with age . In most animals the teeth erupt from the bottom, but in elephants, they grow and push from the back to the front. The molars are replaced five times, in the lifetime of an Asian elephant.
  • The tusk is an outgrowth or extension of the upper incisor or teeth. In males, it starts in two or two and a half years and grows 3 - 4 inches every year. The tusk has regenerative capacity. The pulp, which is conically shaped, is present along the inside of the tusk. One has to be careful not to damage the pulp, while trimming, or shaping the tusk. Teeth in Sanskrit are called Dantam, and thus the elephants are also called Danti. The elephant uses its tusks in a variety of ways. Humans may be right or left handed. Elephants also exhibit, a similar dexterity, for a particular tusk. The tusks continue growing, even after being cut.
  • The Asian cow elephants have tushes, but African cows have tusks.
  • The tongue has restricted movement and cannot be protruded out. The food can be hooked if placed on the tongue and pushed back into the mouth.
  • An elephant's trunk is formed by the fusion of the upper lip and the nose. It is made of approximately 1,00,000 muscles.
  • There is no naso lacrimal duct, running from the eye to the nose and so water runs out of the eyes constantly.
  • A few sweat glands are present on the skin, found at the base of the nails. Since the sweat glands are deficient, the elephant sucks secretions from the mouth and sprays it on its body, with its trunk, to lower the body temperature.
  • The skin is very thick and hence is called a Pachyderm. The skin has several folds and wrinkles, which help to remove heat. Though the skin is thick, the elephant will experience pain when injured.
  • Males and females have a temporal gland, which produces secretions or temporal discharge . Temporal gland activity in bulls, is characterised by behavioural changes, particularly aggression, libido and disobedience to words of commands. Some cow-elephants occasionally exhibit temporal gland activity, but do not show any pronounced behavioural changes.
  • Elephants cannot jump up, because their legs are not shaped correctly, for absorbing the shock of a jump. They may leap horizontally however, as their knee cap is placed very low, which helps them stand on or bend their knees, like humans.
  • The heart of an elephant does not have a pointed apex, like other mammals. The ends are shaped differently and have a bifid apex.
  • As in marine mammals, the testes of a male elephant are placed abdominally (close to the kidneys). During musth, the testes enlarge in size (functional hypertrophy).
  • In a cow-elephant, the vulval openings are between the hind legs. Clitoris is large and may be 15-30 cms long, but they mate like all other quadrupeds or four legged animals.
  • Elephants have two openings on the roof of their mouth called vomero- nasal openings, which act as scent glands. Mating consists of prolonged courting , short duration of penetration, several times a day. The special position of the vulva makes the penis (when erected), into a cobra shaped hood, to facilitate penetration. An ejaculate may have 50-100ml of semen.
  • The gestation period is 21 months. Even when pregnant, ovulation takes place in cows.
  • Calf at birth weighs 80-100 kg and 90-100 cms in height.
  • Mammary glands are found between the forelegs. They secrete milk through several pores. Usually they suckle offspring for 4-5 years, but in captivity, the calves are weaned after 2 years.
  • Although herbivorous, the cholesterol level in African elephants is high, compared to that of the local tribes (Masai), who eat beef.
  • There is no gall bladder in the elephant.--
  • Dog posture or 'sternal recumbency' posture is a relatively safe and comfortable position in other animals. In elephants this is dangerous, especially when they are tired. The pleural cavity around the lungs is absent in elephants, and they may die of suffocation if made to sit in the dog posture for long periods under sedation, or for any other purpose. Respiration rate is 10 PM (per minute) while standing and 5 PM during recumbency.
  • Like humans, elephants are also prone to arthritis, because of the vertical position of their limbs.
  • The total number of bones in the elephant's body is 282 and the total number of vertebrae is 61. The bones are not very thick and so the likelihood of a fracture is greater.
  • Elephants can stand for long periods. Horses and passerine birds have checked ligaments, which help them to stand, while sleeping straight up. Similarly, elephants are also provided with such feet, that can be splayed, thus enabling them to stand for long periods. There was an elephant in Thrippunithara, Kerala, that stood up for 18 months, when it was sick. Healthy elephants in captivity, usually do not lie down during the day.
  • Most animals, fold their hind limbs backwards, while lying down, but elephants fold them forwards.
  • Captive elephants in Kerala, are given a restorative treatment during the monsoon, which is a practise for human beings too, in Kerala.
  • Elephants are efficient seed dispersers. Seeds that pass out in the elephant's dung are highly viable and germinate easily.
  • They defecate 15-20 times a day. The number of boli being 5-8 and weighing 1-21/2 kg. Elephants urinate 10-15 times a day and a total quantity of 50-60 litres is expelled. Inadequate water intake produce crystelluria.
  • Elephants can unerringly locate and dig out water from the sub soil or river beds, during the dry periods.
  • Elephants have a remarkable memory for events and people and are also believed to be emotional. While in musth, captive male elephants deliberately try to attack their mahouts.
  • Elephants are gregarious by nature. In the wild when a baby elephant is born, it is trained and disciplined by every adult in the group. Captive born calves, on the other hand, turn out to be truants, as they are excessively pampered by humans. They turn out to be problematic adults, if not trained properly after weaning.
  • Elephants have matriarchal groups and the leader of a herd is usually a cow-elephant. Males are loosely attached to the herd. In summer, when there is scarcity of food and water, the herds break up into smaller herds and when favourable conditions return , they re-unite to form a large herd with a larger number of individuals. Elephants in the wild spend a minimum of 60-70% of their activity in feeding. In summer during the day, the herds spend 2-4 hours a day resting, to prevent heat strokes.
  • Elephant herds when threatened, have an interesting defence strategy. At first they all stand in a line defending. Then they round up the young ones and sub-adults into the centre and form a circle around them.
  • Elephants can never be completely domesticated. They always have a desire to return to the wild, unlike some other domesticated species, such as dogs and cats, which come back home.
  • Elephants are a valuable commodity and need to be handled with care and respect. In Artha shastra, an ancient Indian text, Chanakya (the author), described the value of elephants as equivalent to gold. Chankaya says that, a man deserved capital punishment, if charged of killing an elephant.

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Dr. K.C. Panicker

Trunk: The trunk is the most attractive feature in an elephant and makes it look different from other herbivores. Trunk is an extension of the upper lip. The shape and length of the trunk varies in various elephants. Some elephants have a very long trunk that touches the ground, where as others have very short trunks. The free end of the trunk is produced into a triangular finger like, tip. This organ enables the elephant to pick up the smallest of objects from the ground. The trunk is made of two types of muscles. It is by the action of these muscles that the elephant is able to extend or retract its trunk. The trunk has two openings on its free end. The opening within the trunk forms the nasal passage. The nasa passage runs into the centre of the forhead bump, followed by the gullet and finally branches into the lungs.

The elephant thus breathes and also sucks water, through the trunk. The trunk is also used for other things such as spraying the body with water, uprooting grass, pulling down branches, tearing the palm branches apart etc. The elephant has a highly developed sense of smell. Using the trunk, they can smell objects and people. Bulls use the trunk to check if a cow is in heat. They hold twigs or branches by the trunk to scratch their body.

Tusks: Tusks are modified incisors of the upper jaw. They arise form the front portion of the skull.1/3rd of the tusk is embedded in the skull and the rest is visible from outside. 2/3rds of the tusk is hollow and consists of pulp. Tusks continue to grow throughout the elephant’s life. In captivity, the tusks are trimmed once in every two years. Elephants with long divergent tusks are considered attractive in Kerala. Tusks acquire various shapes. They are also called "white gold", because of the demand for ivory. Ivory continues to be a priced commodity, for which several elephants have been killed. It is therefore rightly said that the tusk is the elephant's enemy. The tusk is used a defence weapon during fights between elephants. They are also used to push trees down, lift objects etc. The Asian cow elephant and Makhnas posses tushes instead of tusks. African bulls and cows posses tusks.

Ears: Broad and fan shaped ears make an elephant attractive. An elephant that fans its ears constantly is considered healthy. The ears help balance the body temperature of the elephant. The skin on the ear is very thin and the veins can be seen very clearly. Injections and intravenous are administered through the veins on the ears. The sides of the ears begin folding inwards as the elephant becomes older. It is possible to make a rough estimate of the elephant’s age by looking at the folds. The ear folds about an inch in 30 years, meaning if an elephant has a fold measuring an inch, its age can be predicated as 30 years.

Eyes: The eyes are relatively small in size. The elephant cannot see objects at long distance. The colour of the eyes are normally honey or dark brown. A third eyelid within the eye protects the pupil. This makes it difficult to apply ointments on the eye. Hence medicines must be applied from the lower portion of the eye.

Teeth: The elephant possesses only molars and there are four of them at any given time. The upper surface of the teeth are made up of several ridges. The teeth are replaced constantly. New teeth arise from behind the mouth and push forwards while growing and the older teeth to fall off. The teeth are replaced six times in an elephant's lifetime. Thus there are a total of 24 teeth. Occasionally one may observe a single worn out tooth or a pair, on one side of the jaw. If a pair are seen then one of them is the remnant of the old tooth and the other is the rudiment of the new tooth. The teeth are replaced at various ages in an elephant's life time. The first set of teeth appear when the elephant is a year old. These are replaced when the elephant is six years of age. This is followed by further replacements at 9, 25, 50 and 100 years of age. The age of an elephant can be estimated by observing its teeth. The sixth set is the largest of all the sets and it measures 1 feet in length, 2 inches in breadth and approximately weigh four kilo grams.

Fore and hind limbs: The limbs are strong and pillar like in appearance. In Malayalam, the forelimbs are called nada and hindlimbs, amaram. The joints between the bones are vertical which make it difficult for elephants to jump forwards. The limbs bear digits and nails. The digits are not visible as they are embedded within the skin. The nails are visible. Most elephants have 18 nails, 5 on each foreleg and 4 on each hindleg. The number of nails varies in number and some posses 16 or 17 nails. Those with 16 nails are considered inauspicious. It is rare to see elephants with 20 nails, which is considered as a very auspicious sign.

Internal organs:

Tongue: The tongues is fleshy and cannot be protruded outwards. While feeding a depression is found in the middle of the tongue where the food material is placed and folded backwards into the mouth.

Digestive system: Stomach is single chambered. The intestine is approximately 170 feet long. Digestion takes place in the large intestine.

Liver: Liver is large but gall bladder is absent.

Heart: has 2 apexes. The rate of heartbeat is 28 times per minute, but it is greater when lying down ie 35 times per minute. Heart beat is recorded from the veins behind the ears.

Testis : are located internally, on either side of the vertebral column.

Temporal glands : are located in the temporal region of the brain. They lead to a temporal opening which is located between the eye and the ear. During musth, the temporal gland becomes enlarged and secretes a fluid, which runs out through the temporal opening.

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Dr. K.C. Panicker

Evolutionary history of elephants dates back several million years, along the geological time scale. They underwent a series of changes over the years to evolve into the present form. They are placed under the family Proboscidae. A few ancestors of elephants are mentioned below.

Moeritherium : The fossils of Moeritherium were first discovered near Lake Moeris in Egypt, hence the name. Moeritherium is considered to be the ancestor of all Proboscides. This species was about 2 feet tall and looked more like a pig than an elephant. The eyes and ears were small and the trunk was absent. The evidence for its ancestry to elephants is in the skull structure and dentition. The upper jaw bears outgrowths of incisor teeth.

Dinotherium : This group is nicknamed as monsters because of their appearance. On the lower jaw a pair of backward curving tusks were present. They had a flat head and the trunk was quite long.

Trilophodon : Trilophodon received its name from the peculiar dentition it exhibited. The upper region of the first two molars were fused to form a crown. This group also were characterised by an extended lower jaw bearing two long tusks.

Platybilodon : They had short trunks and a large mouth. Each jaw bore a pair of tusks. The tusks of the lower jaw were short and spoon-shaped.

Mastodon : Mastodons were about the same size as modern elephant but of a much bigger build. Its head showed features such as a flattened forehead rising to a prominent domed crown, large curved tusks in the upper jaw and a well developed trunk. The body was covered with hair.

Mammoth : The mammoth is the most popular among ancestors of elephants. Their fossil remains have been found preserved in the icy ground of Siberia. Mammoths were extremely tall (measuring up to 15 feet) and possessed a pair of large curved tusks emerging from the upper jaw. Their body was covered with long, thick hairs as protection against the cold. Scientists claim that the present two elephant types -- Asian and African -- evolved directly from mammoths.

There are several differences between the two living species

Asian elephants

African elephants

Smaller in size

Larger in size

Shorter in height

Taller in height

Highest point at the middle of the back

Highest point at shoulder

Comparatively smaller ears

Large ears

Long and large trunk

Comparatively smaller trunk

One finger like process at the tip of trunk

Two finger like processes at tip of trunk

Small tusks

Large tusks

Tusks only in males

Tusks in both sexes

Commonly found to posses 18 nails

14 nails are common

Back is unbroken and convex in curvature

dip on the back between fore and hind quarters

Bull-dog faced with twin domed forehead

Elongate,narrow face with flat forehead

Musth episodes usually in male

Musth in both sexes

Easier to domesticate

Comparatively difficult to domesticate

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Sub Species of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus)

The Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are classified into 7 sub species, based on their geographical distribution. How ever scientific data for this classification is not available.

Name of sub species


1. Elephas maximus ceylonicus

Sri Lanka

2. Elephas maximus indicus


3. Elephas maximus bengalensis

Northern India

4. Elephas maximus dakamensis

Southern India

5. Elephas maximus burmanicus


6. Elephas maximus hirsutus


7. Elephas maximus sumatranus


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Sub Species of African elephants (Loxodonta africana ) :s

Bush elephant

Loxodonta africana africana

Forest elephant

Loxodonta africana cyclotis


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