Friday, November 30, 2012

A selection of elephant facts

There are a number of things that I have learned about elephants over the last few years that have surprised or amazed me. I thought today I would simply share a few of my favorite elephant facts. 

The first is particularly close to home as it has been the focus of my own research with elephants. Elephants are one of eight species that are capable of self-awareness. That is, along with the great apes (humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans), dolphins and magpies, elephants can recognize themselves in the mirror. It is pretty amazing that they belong to such a small group of animals that are aware of themselves and can therefore understand others to a much higher level.

Secondly, any ideas where the only place an elephant can sweat from is? It is in fact from in between their toenails. No one knows why it is from here that they sweat, but we do know that they don’t sweat from anywhere else.

A slightly more random one: one of the closest living relatives to the elephant is the hyrax, totaling a massive 4kg (as opposed to their 4 ton relatives). It is due to the same specialized wrist bone that they are classified as taxonomically close relatives. 
Rock Hyrax
There is a myth that elephants are afraid of mice. I don’t know if this is true or not but I do know that African elephants are scared of bees. Yes, it’s hard to imagine an animal as big as an elephant being scared of anything. But present them with a swarm of bees and they literally run in the opposite direction, as the youtube clip shows. 

Last but not least: twice the circumference of an elephant’s foot equals their height. This is much less profound but I think more unbelievable. I mean, look at the photo below. I am surprised every time one of the vets here demonstrates this fact; their feet just don’t seem big enough! But it is true every time. It is also a useful fact as it means that you can tell how big a wild elephant is just by looking at their footprint.

So there you have it, a few little facts that can be used to fill in the next awkward silence or amaze guests at a dinner party.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Elephant Personalities at the Golden Triangle- Part 4

At the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, there are 26 elephants, all of whom have their own very unique and individual personalities. I am going to tell you about another two elephants in this blog, Namchok and Pompui.

Namchok and Pompui are two elephants from a place called Surin in Thailand, who share a very special bond. One would think they are related by the way they act together but, surprisingly, they are not. They are inseparable and spend all their time together out in the jungle, bathing in the river, playing and going on treks.  They are both young elephants. Namchok is 12 and Pompui is 6 years old.

Pompui on the left, Namchok on the right

Namchok is quite a greedy elephant and wants to constantly eat. During the monsoon season, when the grasslands here are flooded, all the young elephants come down to the research site and spend their day here. Research can therefore be interesting as Namchok is the nearest elephant to our equipment and will frequently make a loud squeaking noise to try to get our attention. The reason she so eagerly wants our attention is because she wants us to give her some sunflower seeds (food rewards which we give to our research elephants). If she doesn’t get the seeds, she will take to throwing grass at the nearest member of the team - quite a brat one might say! Her aim is very accurate and there have been a number of occasions when I have been hit by a flying piece of grass. Namchok also has a fascination with my feet. Often when I see her, she will not leave my feet alone and will just keep smelling and tapping them - I don’t know whether she is trying to tell me something!

Pompui is slightly less greedy and a little quieter than Namchok. Pompui really likes women and, if you are near her, she will wrap her trunk around your hand and pull you close to her. She prefers it if you sit next to her and she will actually guide you to the floor so you can sit. She will then stick her trunk in your face and generally have a good smell of you. I really like sitting underneath Pompui and in the 10 months that I have been here, I have spent much time doing so :) 

Watching Namchok, Pompui and another one of our young elephants, Meena, is just a delight. They will play together for hours and exude sheer joy in the process. The three of them will run up and down together, climb on top of each other, roll around in the dirt, spray mud at each other, lay down beside each other and all the time make incredible trumpet sounds.

Pompui and Namchok are very lucky to have three mahouts to take care of them, Khun Prom, his wife Khun Nang and their son Tony. It is very rare to have female mahouts in Thailand, but Khun Nang is one of them. They care deeply about their elephants and it is so nice to see these mahouts interacting with them. Pompui and Namchok are part of a large and close-knit family consisting of one husband, one wife one son and two elephants.

Untill the next time……………………

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A message from the Elephant Tooth Fairies.

Dear President and board members of the Tooth Fairy & Mouse Corporation, (Inc.) [1]

We, the Asian and African Elephant Tooth Fairies - along with our colleagues the Asian and African Elephant Tooth Mice - hereby notify the president and members of the board of the Tooth Fairy & Mouse Corporation (Inc.) of our desire to get better working conditions.
Indeed, work hours, hourly salaries and benefits are currently based on the Human Tooth Fairy and Mouse duties and responsibilities. We will expose hereafter why we believe this situation is unfair.

The Human Tooth Fairy & Mouse claim they have the most important job of all since children have 28 teeth that need collecting. However, please consider that while humans have only two sets of teeth during their lifetimes, elephants have six of them.  Consequently, we have to preside to the teeth replacement five times in one elephant's life. You may therefore understand how important our workload is - not to mention how much money we have to spend. 

Some of our colleagues in the Human department have argued that our claims are pointless since elephants only have six teeth at any given time: two tusks and four molars, one on each side of each jaw. This is actually true, but incomplete, given the six sets situation (six sets of 4 teeth, plus the tusks, equals 26 teeth that we have to look after). Also, four molars maybe, but what molars!! The size of a brick and let's not even mention the weight. Actually let’s talk about it: up to 11 pounds for the African elephant! Imagine how ill prepared we are, with our little wings and our little legs, to transport such massive chewing instruments! 

Fig A. 1, 2, 3... 4 teeth.

Our friends and colleagues the Elephant Tooth Mice wanted to address a crucial point. As you are well aware, their ultimate goal is to please their Queen by building her a palace entirely made of shiny, sparkling teeth collected all over the world. Teeth are therefore a serious matter for them as they represent their basic construction material. 
Unfortunately, elephants have been proven to be a poor source of quality supply. In children and many other mammals, the new tooth grows vertically, which means the old one falls intact. In pachyderms, teeth grow horizontally: they emerge at the back of the mouth and then slowly make their way up to the front, similar to a conveyor belt. [2] In the process the old tooth is pushed out and destroyed by its young rival. It often breaks down in many pieces and sometimes is swallowed by the elephant. In these conditions, we hope you realize what a loss it represents for the Tooth Mice and how hard it is for them to reach their monthly quota of goods to deliver to the Queen's Palace.

We would like to highlight the emotional and moral distress we have to go through during our lives with our gentle jumbos. For our colleagues dealing with human beings, swapping the milk tooth for a coin is a joyful moment, a rite of passage almost. No such thing for us; when time comes to collect teeth from set number 5, our hearts are filled with pain and sorrow. We know that when the last tooth of the last set is completely worn out, the elephant is not able to feed herself anymore. She will go to wetlands where the plants are softer, then progressively get weaker and weaker before passing away. We hope you realize the important source of stress it represents for your employees.

Finally, please consider that teeth allow researchers to identify the species they belong to. For example they can identify past and extinct species such as mammoths and, by analyzing their chemical composition, reconstruct the diet and the environment they were living in. Teeth are also important to people doing genetic analyses since DNA is present and well preserved in the pulp. Distinguishing between Asian and African tuskers is also easy. In African elephants the ridges at the surface of the tooth are diamond (or lozenge)-shaped while an Asian elephant’s tooth has a higher number of parallel, loop-shaped ridges. This is due to differences in eating behaviors: African jumbos are browsers feeding on branches from bushes and trees while Asian elephants are grazers relying on grass. 

Fig B. Teeth from African (left) and Asian (right) elephants.
There is in fact more to it than this: through teeth experts can estimate the size and age of a dead elephant, which is very useful during these times of poaching. We believe we don't have to explain further why our work is therefore crucial.

Since we are on the topic of poaching, we hope you do not forget that tusks are teeth - more precisely modified, overgrown upper incisors. 

Fig.C An Asian elephant named Phuki, proudly showing his tusks.
They are formed of a special type of dentine - ivory - that is unfortunately a great carving material. Milk tusks appear when the baby is about 7 to 8 month-old, soon replaced by proper tusks around 18 to 24 months. While only male Asian elephants have tusks, both female and male African jumbos possess them -- think of the workload! Tusks grow continuously at a rate of 15 to 18 cm a year. It is really useful because jumbos wear them out by using them for digging or removing bark. The disadvantage is that tusks are living organs, just like other teeth: in fact about one third of the tusk is actually invisible, since it goes up into the skull to the jaw. Breaking one near its root can therefore be extremely dangerous for an elephant - infection, pain... Which again, means more work and emotional distress for us.

We hope this grievance letter has convinced you of the importance of our mission and the difficulties associated with it. We eagerly await your answer and your propositions about how to improve our work conditions.

Best wishes,

AAETFMA (Asian and African Elephant Tooth Fairies and Mice Association).

[1] The Anglo-Saxon world has the Tooth Fairy while the Latin world (France, Italy, Spain etc...) has the Tooth Mouse, whose job is practically the same.
[2] Not the only thing the elephant does differently than everybody else: they also chew back and forth and not from one side to the other like us.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Pookie (/Phuki) is the name of the day!

Up to this point I have had 3 Pookies in my life, which I suspect is more than average. The first was very early on in my childhood and was a small white rabbit with wings, not a real one but a beloved story book character. The story begins; "This is the story of Pookie, a little white furry rabbit, with soft, floppity ears, big blue eyes and the most lovable rabbit smile in the world". This Pookie was outcast for having wings but upon leaving home began to have such adventures and tried to do good deeds for everyone. He was a big part of my early childhood, encouraging adventure and good will. And so began a life of Pookies!

The second Pookie was an orphaned meerkat pup that I cared for in South Africa for a couple of months. He taught me a lot about meerkats and how adorable but equally annoying they can be. He was less keen on the good deeds but did have a lot of adventures, mainly involving digging. Being only a few weeks old I learned a lot about responsibility and the dedication it takes to care for another creature from meerkat Pookie. I also learned a lot about patience as he really tried mine sometimes with his constant noise, burrowing, hunger and attention seeking- good preparation for my work with children later on!
Meerkat Pookie digging as always! Photo by Ella Ormerod

Last but definitely not least comes the GTAEF adult bull elephant, Phuki. When I first met elephant Phuki his name amused me greatly as, at around 3.5 meters tall and weighing around 4000kg he outsizes the other two Pookies by a considerable amount, it just didn’t seem to fit in my mind that a bull elephant could have the same name as a rabbit with wings and a baby meerkat! But his size doesn’t stop him from being the gentlest Phuki I’ve known. He is also very relaxed, and as his performance on our research seems to show, he’s rather intelligent too. Although he is now the only bull elephant we work closely with, I feel I learn more about bull Asian elephants and become more interested in their mysterious ways each time I’m with him. 

Overall I’ve very much enjoyed all the Pookie/Phukis that I’ve met so far and if I learn this much from each one then I hope to meet many more!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Elephants, elephants do we really want to lose them?

Elephants are one of the most iconic and charismatic animals on the planet. Their image is everywhere and there are probably not many people who do not know what an elephant is or looks like. Their big ears, long trunks and general large size make them very unique. There are few species which invoke as much emotion in humans as elephants, and that is why they are so popular in stories, animations and mythology. The elephant is a national symbol in many Asian countries, including Thailand, and a symbol in different religions. Their image is also popular for ornaments, wall decorations, toys and jewellery, and they are used for logos by many companies. You can’t get away from the image of an elephant…….. they are everywhere. In this blog, I shall survey the different images of elephants and identify where they are found.

Elephants as a national symbol

In Thailand, the elephant is the best known national symbol and has been associated with Thai people for many centuries. Elephants were historically used in transportation, in wars and in logging. The symbol of the elephant even became part of the national flag from 1855 – 1916, depicting a white elephant on a red background.

Elephants in Religion

The elephant is very important in religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. For example, in Hinduism, Ganesh is represented by the head of an elephant and is one of the best-known and most widely worshipped deities. The image is found throughout India and Nepal. Another elephant image within Hinduism is Airavata, a mythological white elephant who carries the Hindu god Indra. Airavata has 7 trunks, 4 tusks and is completely white.

Elephants in Literature

There is an array of children’s literature that features elephants as main characters.  These stories can certainly be regarded as being amongst children’s favorites. Two stories that come to mind include ‘Elmer the Patchwork Elephant’ and ‘Barbar’. The story of Elmer is a wonderful tale about a colorful patchwork elephant who wants to fit in with the other elephants, ‘his friends’, and so he paints himself grey. When grey, the other elephants don’t recognize Elmer and they no longer accept him as one of their own. Elmer is saddened because of this and experiences what it is like to be an outcast. Only when it begins to rain and the grey paint starts to rinse off, do Elmer’s friends start to recognize him as his ‘true colors’ start to come through. His friends are delighted as they loved him for his multi-colored skin, for his fun personality and for his differences. To celebrate Elmer and his return, they paint themselves like Elmer and all become multi-colored patchwork elephants. This story is very popular among children and has sold 5 million copies around the world.

Another popular elephant literature character is Babar the elephant who features in a series of stories. Babar is an orphaned elephant whose mother was shot by a hunter. After fleeing to the city from the jungle, Babar is befriended by an old lady who buys him clothes and starts to educate him. After a few years, Barbar’s cousins find him in the city and help him return to the jungle and elephant realm. A council of elephants announce that Babar would be a suitable king as he has lived among men. The stories are about Barbar’s rule as king and the different adventures he has.

Other popular elephant characters in books include, Horton the Elephant in ‘Horton Hears a Who’ and Hathi in ‘The Jungle Book’.

Elephants on the big screen

It’s not only books that feature elephants, as they have featured in many films and animations including: ‘Water for Elephants’,` Ice Age’, ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ (a Bond film), ‘The Temple of Doom’ (an Indiana Jones film), ‘Alexandra’, ‘A Passage to India’, Lord of the Rings, ‘City Lights’ (a Chaplin film) and ‘Gunga Din’.

The most well known animation featuring an elephant is ‘Dumbo’. This animation is another popular story about an elephant, in this case called Dumbo, who is delivered by a stork to Mrs Jumbo, a veteran of the circus. Dumbo is ridiculed because of his enormous ears and thus called `Dumbo’. He is assigned to the circus’s clown acts which makes him very unhappy. His only friend and self proclaimed mentor, Timothy the mouse, realizes that Dumbo can fly using his ears, and then teaches him to do so. One day, during a show, Timothy makes Dumbo fly around the circus. Here, he finally strikes back at his tormentors as he amazes the audience. After this performance, Dumbo becomes a media sensation, Timothy becomes his manager and Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo are given a private carriage on the circus train

Elephants in advertising and politics

The elephant is also the most used animal in the field of logo design. Their distinctive shape and strong contour make them a popular choice for many companies. Below are a few examples of elephant-based company logos.

People often associate images of elephants with toughness and durability, and for many, especially in the East, the elephant is considered to be a symbol of good luck.  In the USA, the elephant is even used as a logo for the Republican Party, despite elephants being a non-native animal. Not only are elephants a political symbol but they are also a symbol for popular alcoholic beverages including Chang Beer and Amarula.

Elephants as ornaments and toys
People like to decorate their houses with elephants. They are popular ornaments and a popular symbol in Fen Sui. They are also a symbol of good luck, wisdom, fertility and protection, which is why they can be found in so many people’s homes.

You can go into any toy shop and be 100% sure of finding a stuffed elephant toy or a game featuring an elephant. Kids love the image of an elephant because of their characteristic and almost fantasy- like appearance. 

Without doubt, therefore, elephants are iconic and popular, their image is found everywhere, they serve as national symbols and are even a symbol in religion. So, why is it that elephant populations are severely endangered both in Africa and Asia? We are losing elephants at an extremely rapid rate. How have we let this iconic animal lose vast amounts of its habitat, be stolen from the wild, be killed for raiding farmlands and become the tragic victim of violent and bloody poaching to facilitate the lucrative trade in ivory.  Everyone loves the image of the elephant but, in a few years time, possibly the only places where we will be able to see the elephant will be in books, in zoos, on the television or as toys and ornaments. We won’t be laughing when we watch Dumbo try to fly, as we will realize that there are no more elephants left in the wild and we, as the human race, will have let this beautiful, strong and iconic species disappear.  It’s imperative that we don’t let this happen and that we act now before it is too late. We need to educate people and spread the word about how these beautiful creatures need our help.