Why Elephants are Special

from https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/html/raiseorphan.htm

As Kenyan conservationist Daphne Sheldrick mentions in a BBC Witness Interview, the poaching of elephants persists due to poverty in Africa and demand for tusks from eastern Asia. And although any poaching is shameful, that of elephants is especially poignant because they are highly social and intelligent mammals. And being tuned in to chemical compounds I have to point out that even their milk is special!

Savanna elephant populations declined by about 30 percent (equal to 144,000 elephants) between 2007 and 2014. A worse decimation occurred between 1979 and 1989 when the overall population of African elephants decreased from 1.3 million to 0.6 million. Now there are only about 350 000 elephants left on the continent. The latest decline is concentrated in certain countries where large carcasses are also found in protected areas.

Elephant population trends in GEC landscapes over the past ten years based on GEC data and comparable previous surveys (methodology in Chase et al. 2016). Red landscapes declining >5%/year, orange declining 2-5%/year, yellow declining or increasing <2%/year, pale green increasing 2-5%/year, dark green increasing >5%/year. From http://www.greatelephantcensus.com/final-report/

Poaching leaves behind orphans, and human attempts to adopt them has been difficult due to the uniqueness of the species. Baby elephants are fully dependent on mother’s milk until the age of two years old, and they aren’t fully weaned until they’re four or five. It took conservationists many years to find a suitable substitute for mother’s milk  because it is atypical of mammals’ milk. In animals as diverse as cows, sheep, humans and lions the main fatty acid is palmitic acid, a 16-carbon molecule. For example the fat in cow’s milk consists of 52% palmitic and oleic acids.

Palmitic acid,which leads to severe diarrhea in baby elephants. Each vertex in the structural diagram symbolizes a carbon atom. There are 15 such vertices; add the C in the methyl group shown and you have the 16 in C16H32O2

But although elephant’s milk has 2 to 3 times as much fat overall, 82% of the fat contains the smaller fatty acids capric and lauric acids ( 10 and 12 carbons per molecule, respectively). For a long time the adopted elephant babies were dying within as little as 24 hours from dehydration after they were fed milk containing fatty acids that they could not digest. After 28 years of trial and error, Sheldrick and her helpers came up with a tolerable milk-formula that was based on coconut milk, which is 50% lauric acid.

Lauric acid, a fatty acid that infant elephants can digest.

The infants need a support for their trunks while feeding and require constant attention. Due to their intelligence, they need to play in a varied and stimulating environment similar to their natural surroundings. Once off milk, they are still too young to be released into the wild. Then the challenge becomes to find them the right combination of vegetative material to provide them with the necessary trace minerals. They instinctively reject the wrong plants. And of course any time we use that term “instinctive”, we are merely revealing our ignorance as to what kind of visual cues and/or odour or taste receptors are genetically produced within them.

African and Asian elephants belong to different genera. Both Loxodonta and Elephas, respectively, along with the extinct mastodon and mammoth, belong to the order Proboscidea, whose members are characterized by the proboscis or trunk. What is special about this organ? According to the last printed edition of the Britannica, its versatility as an organ among mammals is unrivalled:

(1) The proboscis can be used to lift loads up to 250 kg.

(2) It has transverse muscles(like in a tongue) in a network that also includes radiating muscles. This provides it with fine movement and along with the fine projections at the end of the trunk, it can pick up a coin from flat surfaces (see video).

(3) It serves as a living eating utensil, delivering food to the mouth.

(4) It’s used for drinking and most of the elephant’s inhaling.

(5) It can squirt water or even sand on itself for protection from sun and insect bites.

(6) It’s  used in social “trunk-shakes”.

Ironically in the wild, the tusks, for which most elephants are slaughtered, serve to protect the precious proboscis.