A population explosion in South-East Asia has caused humans to clear much elephant habitat for farmland. Remaining forests are isolated and Asian Elephants are now Endangered, with as few as 34,000 left in the wild.
Taronga and other reputable international zoos have the unique expertise to conduct programs to maintain genetically and behaviourally healthy species that are otherwise threatened in the wild. This work complements the work of other conservation organisations in range states to preserve habitat and identify local solutions that can sustain the world's remaining wildlife.
Taronga's elephant program is committed to raising awareness, understanding and support of the plight of wild and domestic elephants and contribute to their care and conservation in range states.
The main threat to remaining wild Asian elephant populations is habitat destruction as a result of human encroachment. Wild populations now inhabit only a small percentage of their former ranges due to land being cleared for farms, roads and cities. This has lead to on-going human-elephant conflict over resources and resulted in many elephants and people being killed.
As well as participating in our region's first co-ordinated breeding and conservation program for their species, our elephants are here to create awareness and provide information about elephants and the threats and dangers to their future survival.
Taronga Zoo also has a long history of providing funds and support to many conservation projects for Asian Elephants around the world.
Some of these projects include:
Kui Buri National Park - Southwest Thailand
Kui Buri National Park is located in southwest Thailand and is recognised as home to one of the largest remaining populations of Asian Elephants – estimated at 300. It is also home to Banteng, Gaur, Malayan Tapir, Sun Bear, Dhole and Plain-pounched Hornbill.
Taronga supports the Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation’s work in Kui Buri National Park and the reduction of human-elephant conflict caused by activities such as farming. We provide funding for two ‘guard stations’ that protect two areas of the park. The ‘guard teams’ involve the local farmers in monitoring, data collection and actions to reduce the conflict.
Elephant Transit Home - Sri Lanka
The Elephant Transit Home (ETH) was established in 1995 by the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).
It was created to provide care and rehabilitation to young elephant calves found abandoned or orphaned with little or no prospect of survival due to the loss of their mother and natural herd.
During the last decade, over 1300 wild elephants have been killed in Sri Lanka due to gunshot wounds, poisoning, electrocution, land mines and collisions with vehicles & trains.
The objectives of the Elephant Transit Home revolve around the central aim of re-introducing fit and healthy young elephants back into the National Parks of Sri Lanka. This project is the only one of it’s kind in the world for Asian elephants.
Funding from Taronga Zoo provides milk, medicine and supplies for elephant calves in their rehabilitation and will continue until they are old enough to be re-released back into the wild.
Since it’s creation the Elephant Transit Home has successfully rehabilitated and released over 60 juvenile elephants back into the Udawalawe National Park.
Taronga Zoo sponsors an orphaned elephant calf at Sri Lanka’s Elephant Transit Home and will continue to pay for its care up to and including when she is released into a national park in the future. Her name is Moreesha.
Biodiversity & Elephant Conservation Trust - Sri Lanka Youth Awareness
With funding from Taronga Zoo, The Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust launched an awareness program to generate support in Sri Lanka to resolve the ongoing Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) problem in the country. Human-Elephant conflict is increasingly common throughout Asia as humans and elephants compete for land, space and resources.
In Sri Lanka alone roughly 150 elephants & 60 people die every year as a result of this ongoing conflict.
This was aimed at young people in Sri Lankan schools addressing the value of elephants, the causes of conflict, how to minimize it and the need for conservation. The sessions have been successful in changing children's attitudes in studies already undertaken.
Way Kambas National Park - Sumatra
When Way Kambas National Park was established in 1984, local communities were relocated out of the park, leaving behind open wells, which have proven to be a deadly trap for the wild animals. Wild elephants and other animals are very active in the area between the rain forest and the deep Braja swamp. This area is dense with wells and juvenile elephants are the most common animals found trapped. It is estimated that 300 elephants may have died in these wells since 1984. The bones of the severely endangered Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger have also been found in the wells.
Funding from Taronga Zoo’s Field Grants Program is assisting in the closure of these wells reducing the risk to local wildlife.
Taronga Zoo has already contributed $16,200 in funding to support the Thai Government and international conservation agency efforts to stop the illegal killing of wild Asian Elephants in the region. This is through the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) program Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) established to assess the areas of conflict and the reasons why elephants were being killed to assist in resolving the issues.
South Luangwa Conservation Society
South Luangwa is a 9,050 square kilometre National Park in eastern Zambia. Home to over 100 species of mammals and 470 species of birds, this wildlife area is regarded as Zambia’s iconic National Park.
Taronga Zoo has provided funding for an anti-poaching campaign within the South Luangwa National Park (Zambia) to reduce the illegal snaring and shooting of animals for the Bush Meat trade, including African elephants, rhinoceros, primates, antelope and birds.
Elephant DNA Program
Provided base levels of DNA for comparison with wild elephants for Flora and Fauna International project in Cambodia. The DNA was collected from Taronga's breeding group using mouth swabs.
Elephant Veterinary Centre - Mahidol University
Taronga and Melbourne Zoos built at their cost a quarantine centre and elephant care facilities at Mahidol University which was the site our elephants began their journey prior to coming to Australia. This was handed over on the elephants' departure to the University for use in the care of elephants and other wildlife, becoming the first national centre for elephant health.
The zoos have contributed over $150,000 to this centre and it has been officially named by Thai authorities as "Haven of the Elephants".
Micro - Chipping Domestic Nepalese Eelephants
In 2004 Taronga and Western Plains Zoos' veterinarians helped the Nepal Government place identifying microchips in all the country's domestic elephants and helped train veterinarians in the scanning process. This helps prevent illegal cross-border imports of wild-caught elephants from Myanmar. Taronga Zoo Veterinary staff have been regular visitors to Nepal for over a decade, working with local veterinarians to improve health care for elephants and other wildlife in Nepal.
Mahout Support Program to Introduce Trust - Based Management Techniques
Following an approach by the Thai mahouts who worked with zoo staff on the arrival and integration of the Thai elephants, the Zoo and its Elephant Management team committed to support these mahouts in their plan to introduce these modern trust-based techniques at Thai elephant training centres. The goal is to replace the more common traditional system which is more discipline-based.
Both Taronga and Melbourne Zoos have visitor donation facilities that encourage their 2.5 million (between both zoos) visitors annually to contribute to these and other projects for wild elephants.
Distribution & Habitat
Asian Elephants live in the forests and grasslands of India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, Bhutan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Bangladesh and southern China. Across all these regions their natural habitat has been greatly reduced resulting in massive declines of wild populations. In Thailand, a country synonymous with the Asian Elephant, the wild elephant population now may only be 1,500. At the current rate of decline they could be extinct in the wild within 20 years.
On average elephants can live up to 50 - 70 years of age. However, due to poaching and the on-going clearance of forests and natural habitats which result in human-elephant conflict over resources many wild elephants are no longer reaching this age span. The oldest Asian elephant recorded in Australia was 'Jesse' which lived at Taronga Zoo up until 1939 and was 69 years old.
Female and young elephants live in cohesive family groups called herds. Many of the adult females are related and the herd is led by a 'matriarch', usually the oldest or most experienced in the group. The matriarch sets the pace and direction of the herd's activities and these movements usually depend on food and water availability. Male offspring either leave or are driven from these family herds as they begin to mature sexually and become increasingly disruptive. Young males sometimes band together in bachelor groups spending many years sparring to determine their dominance in the bull hierarchy. Once mature, male elephants will usually only socialise with herds when the females are reproductively cycling.
Elephants are extremely intelligent and social animals. The brain of an adult elephant weighs 4.5 -5.5 kg. Elephants have a complex repertoire of communication that includes touching, body posturing and vocalising. Many of these sounds are below the range of human hearing. This is called infrasound and can travel for over a kilometre.
Size and Weight
Males can exceed 5,000kg in weight and can reach over three metres at the shoulder. Females reach weights up to 4000kg and nearly three metres in height at the shoulder.
Elephants develop six sets of molar teeth throughout their lifetime. They have large molar teeth on either side of the upper and lower jaw. These teeth have ridges which are slightly different in shape and appearance between African and Asian Elephants. As elephants’ teeth become older, a new set develops from behind and move forward, similar to a conveyor belt system. These teeth are grown and lost at regular intervals during an elephant's lifetime and are a good indicator of an elephants age. Once the last set of teeth is worn away, the elephant cannot chew properly and soon passes away from malnutrition. While each individual is different this usually occurs over 60 years of age.
Male Asian Elephants have tusks. Tusks are modified incisor teeth and are made of dentine (ivory). 50% of Asian Elephant females grow tushes which are much shorter than tusks and in some cases may not be seen under the trunk. Other females do not develop tushes at all.
The longest recorded tusk of an Asian Elephant bull was 302cm long and weighed 39kg.
The heart of an elephant is huge, weighing 12 - 21kg. In relative terms however, it only weighs 0.5% of the elephants body weight which is normal for large mammals (human hearts are approx 0.4% of overall body weight). The average heart rate is 25 - 35bpm but rises if an elephant gets excited. An elephant’s respiration rate is only 4 - 6 breaths per minute but can rise to 15 if they get excited. While elephants can breathe through their mouth the majority of air is taken through the trunk.
The skin on an elephant’s body varies in thickness from a few millimetres around the ears to almost 3cm on other parts of their body. Despite its thickness, the skin is sensitive with sparse hair and bristles all over the body. Baby elephants are very hairy when born and this hair gets sparser as they get older. Many Asian Elephants also lose pigment in their skin, most noticeably on the trunk and ears. This results in large patches of pinkish colouration in these areas.
Elephants are generalised feeders and consume a large variety of plants, grasses, trees and fruits. By using their trunks they can obtain food anywhere from ground level to high up in the trees. If they can't reach it and they still want it, they just bulldoze the tree until it falls over. They can spend up to 16 hours a day feeding and consume approx 4 - 8% of their body weight each day.
Their digestive system is quite simple and common among mammals. On average it takes an elephant 24 hours to digest a meal. However, they only digest approx 40% of their food intake with the remaining food passing undigested.
Elephants are very sure-footed and have fantastic balance. Although an elephant appears to be flat-footed, it actually walks on its toes. The heel is a pad of fatty and elastic connective tissue. As an elephant walks, its feet, under weight and pressure bulge like a large suction cup, and then as it sets off, this bulging retracts so the foot does not get stuck in muddy or boggy terrain. Asian Elephants have five nails on each front foot and four nails on each rear foot.
Elephants have excellent hearing. They communicate and are able to pick up sounds well below the range of human hearing. This sound is called 'infrasound'. The ears also function as cooling devices. The skin on the ears is only a few millimetres thick which is the thinnest on an elephant's body. By flapping their ears an elephant can cool the blood running through the extensive vein network on the back of the ears thereby dissipating heat. Asian Elephants have smaller, triangular ears.
An elephant's trunk is the most versatile appendage in the animal kingdom. The trunk of an Asian Elephant has one finger-like tip, located on the dorsal side of the trunk. The trunk is connected to respiration and can be used as a snorkel when swimming, as a straw for drinking and as both a knife and fork when eating. An elephant's trunk can pick up something as small as a peanut and as big as a tree trunk. It also assists in communication, dusting, smelling, lifting, defence and offence. An elephant's trunk contains no bones or cartilage and recent research work suggests that there are over 40,000 muscle units within the trunk itself. Measurements show that the trunk of an adult Asian Elephant can hold almost 9 litres of water and a thirsty adult bull can drink over 200 litres of water in less than five minutes.
A young elephant must learn how to use its trunk just children learn to use their arms and hands.
|African Elephant||Asian Elephant|
|Loxodonta africana||Elephas maximus|
|Size||Larger - Can grow up to 7000kg's||Smaller - Can grow to 5000kg's|
|Head||Has only one lobe / bulge in middle of head||Has two lobes / bulges on head|
|Ears||Larger more circular ears||Smaller more triangular ears|
|Tusks||Both male & females have tusks||Only males grow prominent tusks|
|Teeth||Sloping molars with lozenge shaped ridges||Molars with more compressed ridges|
|Trunk||Has two finger-like tips at the end of trunk||Has only one finger-like tip on trunk|
|Feet||Has 4 nails on front feet and 3 on rear feet||Has 5 nails on front feet and 4 on rear feet|
|Back||Has concave shaped back||Has convex shaped sloping back|
Elephants mature sexually between the ages of 8 - 10. However, this is dependant on diet and environment. A plentiful food supply and no environment stresses such as droughts mean some elephants can reproduce at younger ages. There are recorded births from elephants as young as six years old in captivity.
Female elephants cycle every 14 - 17 weeks and once pregnant, give birth to a single calf (twins are very rare) after a gestation period of almost 22 months.
Whilst young elephant males may be eager and willing to breed they may not be in a position to do so until they are able to assert their dominance through size and strength over other males. This could be well in to their late 30's and 40's. Adult male elephants (bulls) go through periods of heightened sexual activity, increased aggressive and sexual behaviour, secretions from glands on the side of the head (temporal glands) and urine dribbling. This is known as musth. Musth is usually associated with increased secretion of testosterone and may last for periods of a few weeks to months. Bulls do not have to be in musth to breed successfully.
There is one official report of a male African and female Asian Elephant interbreeding in 1979, however the calf died 10 days after birth.