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Basic Information

An elephant is a large mammalian herbivore native to parts of Africa and Asia. They are the largest land animals currently on the planet. Physical characteristics include large ears, tusks, and prehensile trunks. The elephant is also the only mammal known to have four knees.

They are endangered because of people hunting them for their ivory and the fact that their preferred habitats clash with the human population's requirements for agricultural land. Even when game preserves are allocated to protect the elephants, it is hard to persuade them not to wander outside the boundaries of those areas and browse on people's crops and gardens, often with poor consequences for the elephant.

Male elephants can be 10 to 11 feet (300+ cm) tall at the shoulder, and weigh 5 to 7 tons. Females are 15 to 20% smaller. There are three subspecies of elephants currently in existence (in size order) the African Bush Elephant, the Asian Elephant and the African Forest Elephant. There have also been a number of extinct varieties, both dwarf types (usually confined to islands) and the famous mammoth. African elephants of both sexes have tusks, but in the Asian species the females have only very small tusks or none at all. It is common for an elephant to have a dominant tusk, which ends up being shorter and more rounded because they use it more for digging up water and roots. On a large old elephant living in good times with ample nutrition, it’s possible for the tusks to grow nearly 10 feet (300 cm) long. Such a massive tusk could weigh up to 200 lbs (90 kg). Ivory poaching has caused natural selection to favor smaller tusks in recent decades.

Diet and Digestion

The African Bush elephant lives on the savanna at the edge of the miombo woodland areas, and their constant foraging (they can consume hundreds of pounds of vegetable matter per elephant per day) is actually what keeps the fast-growing miombo from overtaking the plains. Asian elephants, and the African forest elephant, are woodland dwellers. They will also gorge themselves on fallen fruit if the opportunity presents itself - even if the fruit happens to be partially fermented and full of alcohol… it takes a lot of alcohol to get an elephant drunk , but when it occurs, a drunken elephant is a damned nuisance at best.

Elephants eat plants as they wander, dispersing seeds over a long distance as their bodies slowly digest plant matter.

All those veggies result in plenty of methane, if you could capture their released byproducts and burn it for fuel, it’s supposedly enough each day to power a car for over 30 km.

There is precisely one recorded incident of an elephant eating people - specifically an Asian female who had been driven insane by harassment from local farmers culminating in the killing of her calf. As her mental health deteriorated she began attacking humans and, when killed and examined, was found to have eaten at least some of her victims.

Elephant Behavior

Elephants are social and matriarchal in nature. Pregnant elephants gestate for nearly 2 years, and the entire herd cares for and raises the young. A herd is generally led by the eldest female elephant of the bunch, and is composed mostly of her daughters and their children. In some circumstances, larger herds may be formed of roughly 6 such families in one group. Elephants are not generally territorial, and multiple herds may share the same watering hole or migrate around the same area.

Male elephants (called bulls - female and young are called cow and calf respectively) are generally solitary, due in part to their moodiness and tempers, but will sometimes gather in small groups for a while. Elephant bulls experience an irregular horomonal cycle called musth. When in their musth (which can last days or even months at a time) they become very aggressive and unpredictable. They may challenge other elephants, or make dominance displays such as uprooting or toppling trees. They can be very dangerous at these times, being not only quite strong but also capable of charging at speeds of up to 30 kmh / 18 mph over short distances. During thier musth, elephants secret a reddish residue from the temporal glands on their faces.

Elephants are most active around dusk and dawn. They sleep about 4 hours a night — usually 2 hours standing up and 2 hours snoring away on their sides. They bath themselves (or each other) with blasts of water from their trunks, or by wallowing in mud or dust. Because of their high body volume, they have a hard time cooling off in hot weather. They sometimes use a layer of mud as if it were sunscreen. Despite their high mass, they are entirely capable of swimming, using their trunks as a snorkel for easier breathing. They cannot, however, jump as their size places them close to the square/cube limit for the practical size of a mammal and they cannot safely adsorb the impact of a landing on their skeleton.

Elephant life spans are pretty close in length to human life spans. According to folklore, they never forget. They also recognize their own reflection in mirrors or water. They sometimes use branches as tools, such as to swat insects.

Baby elephants suck their trunks much as human infants suck their thumbs. When an elephant is distressed, it’s herd-mates may try to calm her by putting their trunks in her mouth.

Elephants In Mourning

The idea of an Elephant Graveyard is apocryphal or at least controversial (but therefore probably perfect for gaming). The idea is that old elephants head to specific places to die, and large numbers of elephant skeletons can be found at those locations. While there are some such places where the bones of many elephants can be found, the explanation may be that these are either sites where a group of elephants where poached for their ivory (or died for some other reason such as a water-hole giving out), or places where the local flora is softer and thus easier for an elderly elephant with tooth problems can still find something they can chew.

Regardless of the accuracy of the graveyard idea, elephants do exhibit unusual behavior around the dead remains of others of their kind. When a herd of elephants comes upon a skeleton or body of another elephant, they will observe a moment of silence, touch the remains with their trunks, and sometimes carry bones off with them when they walk away. This mourning reverence no doubt adds to the mythologizing done by humans who observe it.

Elephants At War

War elephants have been used by humans going back to at least the 4th Century BC. They were used by the Nanda Dynasty and Maurya Empire (in India), the Achaemenid Empire, Ancient Egypt, Carthage, and later in Thailand and Vietnam. The majority of military elephants appear to have been of the Asian kind, with some North African powers using the African Forest Elephant. African Bush Elephants were not generally domesticated and do not appear to have seen significant combat use.

A howdah or turret could be mounted on their back, with or without elephant barding, and they may be equipped with metal tusk swords extending off the ends of their natural tusks. A charge by a unit of elephant bulls was a terrifying thing that could cause even disciplined troops to crack and flee. Sometimes the mahout who rode or tended the war elephants would be armed with a poison weapon to be used in the emergency situation where a war elephant panicked or went rogue as wounded elephants might go berserk and be a threat to both sides - although a hammer and a chisel like tool (to be hammered into the elephant's hindbrain) was more normal as an "emergency destruct". In practice it appears that the battlefield elephant, like many apparent superweapons, could be highly effective against naïve troops but was an expensive liability (or at least frequently not worth the cost of deployment) against an opponent experienced in facing such things. A useful example of this might be that the Romans, having faced elephants from both Carthage and the Hellenistic successor states (notably the Selucids), finally captured the Selucid elephant herds and declined to make significant use of them.

Off the battlefield, elephants were used as pack animals to carry supplies or drag siege engines, use which apparently continues into the ongoing insurgency in Burma where pack-elephants are still in use hauling supplies. Due to their temperments and behavior, male elephants were used in combat, and females for logistics and supply.

Lady Trieu (a 3rd Century warrior sometimes called “the Joan of Arc of Vietnam”) often rode a white elephant into battle.

In some old versions of Chess the bishop is an elephant, and in older versions of shogi there was a piece that represented a drunken elephant.

Other Uses:

Besides military use, domesticated elephants (almost all of them Asian) have been used for heavy haulage and/or as prestige mounts since at least 2500 BC, being first domesticated by the Harappan civilisation in the Indus valley. Even into the modern period they continue to be used as logging tractors in many parts of South East Asia and for similar off-road work. There is no evidence of domestication of the African Bush Elephant but the Forest Elephant does seem to have been shipped North for some applications. Elephants, being quite intelligent, can also be trained for a variety of roles in entertainment.

As noted, the elephant can also be hunted for ivory and its meat, but they are a poor choice of animal to farm for these resources due to their slow growth and breeding cycle. Also, the meat is typically of poor quality compared to many food animals and not worth acquiring except as a by-product (of ivory hunting or culling) or if desperate.

Elephants also seem to feature in a variety of proverbs - often as examples of massive objects and unsurmountable tasks (references to "elephants in the room" and points about the difficulty of eating them) or the disconnect inherent in seeing something so big ("seeing the elephant" as a euphemism for combat) or the parable of the blind men who all describe the beast incorrect based on touching a single part.

See Also:

  • acacia and miombo are among the plants elephants eat
  • olorgesailie is a place where lots of fossilized elephant bones have been found


Game and Story Use

  • War elephants could have a huge impact on the struggles in your campaign.
  • The complex behaviors of elephants in the wild might inspire similarly complex behaviors for the creatures of your game.
  • Ivory might show up as a treasure, and/or Poachers may show up as villains.
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