In Nepal and throughout southern Asia, elephants have been used as ceremonial transportation and beasts of burden for thousands of years, earning them a cherished place in the culture – witness the popularity of elephant-headed Ganesh, the darling of the Hindu pantheon. Thanks to this symbiosis with man, Asian elephants (unlike their African cousins) survive mainly as a domesticated species, even as their wild habitat has all but vanished.
With brains four times the size of humans’, elephants are reckoned to be as intelligent as dolphins. What we see as a herd is in fact a complex social structure, consisting of bonded pairs and a fluid hierarchy. In the wild, herds typically consist of fifteen to thirty females and one old bull, and are usually led by a senior female; other bulls live singly or in bachelor herds. Though they appear docile, elephants have strongly individual personalities and moods. They can learn dozens of commands, but they won’t obey just anyone; as any handler will tell you, you can’t make an elephant do what it doesn’t want to do. That they submit to such apparently cruel head-thumping by drivers seems to have more to do with thick skulls than obedience.
Asian elephants are smaller than those of the African species, but still formidable. A bull can grow up to three metres high and weigh four tons, although larger individuals are known to exist. An average day’s intake is 200 litres of water and 225kg of fodder – and if you think that’s impressive, wait till you see it come back out again. All that eating wears down teeth fast: an average elephant goes through six sets in its lifetime, each more durable than the last. The trunk is controlled by an estimated forty thousand muscles, enabling its owner to eat, drink, cuddle and even manipulate simple tools (such as a stick for scratching). Though up to 2.5cm thick, an elephant’s skin is still very sensitive, and it will often take mud or dust baths to protect against insects. Life expectancy is about 75 years and, much the same as with humans, an elephant’s working life can be expected to run from its mid-teens to its mid-fifties; training begins at about age five.