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The largest and probably most well-known of the African animals is the elephant. These large, lumbering behemoths have been associated with wisdom, intelligence and compassion by the cultures that co-exist with them. While different elephant species exist, the African elephant (Loxodonta africana africana)is probably the one that most often comes to mind.
African elephants can stand 3 to 4 metres tall and weigh 3 500 kilograms or more. The largest specimen ever found was in Angola. This giant stood more than four metres tall at the shoulder and weighed almost 12 000 kilograms! A giant among giants, an elephant of this size has yet to be found encountered again.
The African elephants are often characterised by their large ears and much larger tusks. Their smaller cousins, the Indian elephants, are not just physically smaller, but they also have smaller, round ears and less impressive tusks. In the heat of the African sun, the African elephant's ears are important for their survival.
The large ears of the elephants play an important role in keeping the elephant cool. They allow the elephant to cool down his blood and can even be used to as a sort of fan as well. In addition to this practical purpose, the ears are also important for communication. An elephant's ears can be an early warning of whether the elephant is aggressive or just curious.
Elephant tusks are also well-known. Their tusks are a pair of incisors that have evolved to be used for a different function. These massive teeth do not stop growing throughout the life of the elephant, adding about 18 centimetres per year. A full-grown elephant can have tusks that are 4 or more metres long and that can weigh 90 kilograms or more. Elephants use their tusks to dig for roots and water, to strip barks from trees, to battle with one another for mating rights and to defend themselves and their young from danger.
The elephant's trunk is another amazing piece of evolution. The trunk is an evolved form of a nose and upper lip. A mass of muscles, the trunk allows elephants the ability to manipulate objects in ways no other animal can. With its trunk, the elephant can grasp food and tear food, drink water and even defend itself.
African elephants live in the savannah and bush of sub-Saharan Africa. They live in matriarchal groups made of up aunts, mothers, daughters and sisters. Male elephants live solitary lives though they may often form bachelor herds for safety.
The number of African elephants have dwindled considerably over the past few decades due to a combination of human encroachment on their territory and poaching for their ivory. Conservation efforts have helped these magnificent animals to recover their numbers somewhat, but they remain a 'vulnerable' species on the list.
As we learn more about the African elephant, and its smaller cousins, we are becoming increasingly aware of the intelligence of these animals. While they may be dangerous when riled, they have a capacity for self-awareness and are able to experience a range of emotions. When you look at how tender they care for their young, their ingenuity in feeding and bathing, and their complex social hierarchies, it is no wonder that many cultures believed they were wise creatures.
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