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It seems almost impossible to imagine, but centuries ago, elephants flourished in Asia, their trumpet blasts echoing through jungles far and wide. Even at the turn of the 20th century, there were some 200,000 Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in the wild. Today, with only some 35,000 to 40,000 remaining, the elephants' natural range has diminished to only a few places on the continent. Fortunately, the elephant has managed to persist in Anamalai. And if you happened to hike through the lands of the Elephant Mountain, and came upon an elephant herd, you'd bear witness to an increasingly rare sight.

An elephant herd is a complex, female-dominated society. A female elephant, or matriarch, oversees every herd, which usually consists of five or six related animals. Because they are dependent on the herd for food and protection, and reliant on the guidance of their mother, daughters of the matriarch typically stay with the herd for most, if not all, of their lives. Male elephants, on the other hand, play little role in the life of the herd. Even by the age of five, young male elephants assert their independence, and by adulthood, they depart the herd, establishing home ranges of their own, and leading solitary lives.

Elephants Love Their Mamas

"The Living Edens: Anamalai" follows the development of an elephant calf in his first year. The film illuminates one of the most intriguing aspects of elephant culture, matriarchal as it is -- the relationship between mothers and their offspring. In fact, there are many elements of elephant motherhood that can't help but bring human motherhood to mind.

To begin, female elephants carry their developing young for 20-22 months, longer than any other mammal. When the calves are finally born, they are massive, weighing between 150 and 230 pounds. And that's only the beginning. Elephant milk is incredibly rich, and for the first four months of their lives, when they're feeding only from their mothers, elephant calves consume nearly 20 pints of milk a day. Drinking that much milk results in gaining nearly 30 pounds a week.

For the first two to three years of life, baby elephants are utterly dependent on their mothers for feeding. After age two, when a calf starts to eat on its own, the mother's milk remains a critical part of its diet. (Eating, incidentally, along with resting and travelling, account for most of a young elephant's day.) The other female elephants in a herd -- the calf's aunts -- aid its mother, providing protection and caring for the calf. Sadly, should a calf be orphaned before it's two years old, even its aunts can't do enough to keep it alive.

How long do elephants stay with their mothers? On average, for 16 years -- just about the same amount of time that human children rely on their parents.

The Realm of the Senses

Everyone knows the old adage, "An elephant never forgets," and while this isn't necessarily true, it does suggest that elephants are somewhat intelligent, which they are. At the time of birth, most mammals' brains are nearly the same weight that they'll be when the animals are adults. In humans, however, the brain still has a great deal of developing to do, weighing only 27 percent of what it will eventually weigh. Amazingly, the elephant isn't far off; newborns' brains weight 35 percent of what they'll weight when the creatures are full-grown.

Elephants are known to use tools (like tree branches to scratch their backs), but perhaps the greatest sign of their intelligence comes in their capacity to communicate. Interaction between elephants in a herd, to a degree, is done through smell. Elephants communicate by touching each other, yet they touch each other most frequently in orifices, where smells are usually the strongest. Some scientists claim that the elephant's sense of smell make rank among the most acute of any mammal.

Of course, most people associate elephants with their trumpeting trunks, and sound plays a key role in communication as well. Many sounds, however, are low rumbles that are infrasonic, or well below what humans can detect. These lower sounds carry further through air than higher sounds, and help elephants keep in contact when they're further apart. (Elephants can actually stay in contact when they're over distances of more than two miles!) Louder, harsher noises, like trumpeting, are used primarily to indicate alarm.
What a Difference a Continent Makes

Asian elephants are very different animals from their African cousins. Just what are those differences? It's good that you asked:
Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) African Elephant (Loxodanta africana)
Small ears Big ears (one ear can weigh 100 lbs.)
Round backs, smooth skin Sway back, wrinkled skin
Only males have tusks Males and females can have tusks
One finger on end of trunk Two fingers on end of trunk
Herbivore (plant-eater) Herbivore (plant-eater)
Herd animals Herd animals
Endangered Endangered

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