Monday, March 24, 2014

Statistics for the Rest of Us

By: Elise Gilchrist

            There are a lot of facts, statistics, and measurements that get thrown around in the science world. Many of them are impressive or strange or even counter-intuitive, but the majority of them are (for me) incomprehensible. The units are non-relatable, the scale is too large or too small, or the statistic itself does not convey the magnitude of the issue at hand.
            This week, I decided to write about elephant statistics, but put them in terms that are easy to realize. I’ll put in a disclaimer: if you are a math whizz or have a brain (very different from my own) that easily envisions estimates and measures, this may not be the most engaging article. But for any like-minded reader who has no real concept of what 5,000 hectares of forest actually means then stay tuned for some relatable statistics.
            Word on the street is that elephants are big, but how big are they? Full-grown Asian elephants can be anywhere from 2 to 3 meters tall at the shoulder (or for my American readers 6.6 – 9.8 feet). If you know anyone who is 6 feet tall (1.8 meters) you can estimate the height of a smaller elephant. Elephants that land on the taller side of this statistic however, are the same height as a basketball hoop. Lebron James might not score too high in a one on one game against the bull male named, Phuki!
          Elephants are not just incredibly tall, but also overwhelmingly heavy. Asian elephants weigh 2.25 – 5.5 tons or 2,000 – 5,500 kg. This means that smaller elephants are similar to the weight of two Mini Coopers. An elephant that falls on the heavy side, however, has a weight comparable to two limousines or a small helicopter! Can you imagine pulling up with an elephant to take your date to the prom?
            With an animal this large, one can assume that they need to eat and drink a lot to maintain their body size. An elephant on average eats about 150 kg (330 pounds) per day, but larger individuals have been known to eat upwards of 300 kg (660 pounds). When you think about that in terms of salad (elephants are herbivores) that is a LOT of food! An average elephant, eating 150 kg of food per day, is eating the equivalent to 110 pizzas or 1,100 McDonalds cheeseburgers! That means that those hungry individuals who eat 300 kg are eating the equivalent of 660 loaves of bread, in one day! Of course, elephants drink a lot as well. They can hold 4 liters of water in a single trunkful (imagine four liters of Coca-Cola fitting up your nose!). Over the course of a single day elephants can drink 100 – 200 liters of water--that would be like you drinking 281 cans of Sprite or as much as 53 gallons of milk in one day!

Elephant salad bar.

            Speaking of trunks, did you know that an elephant’s trunk can have as many as 60,000 muscles in it? That number certainly sounds like a lot, but how does that compare to the muscles in, say, a human’s body? Our closest trunk-like appendage is probably our arms: humans have just 24 muscles in each arm. The entire human body contains between 650 and 850 muscles. That means that elephants have 70 times as many muscles in their trunk alone compared to the entire human body.  And what about their skin? The average skin thickness on an elephant is 18 mm (0.71 inches) but can be 30 mm (1.2 in) thick in some areas. Most human skin is only 2-3 mm thick. Elephant skin is up to ten times thicker than our own!
            Beyond body statistics, what other elephant measurements are of most concern to conservationists? Asian elephants used to roam over three and a half million square miles. That is slightly less than the total area of the United States of America. It is difficult to determine exactly how much land is suitable to elephant habitat today, but estimates put it around 190,000 square miles. This is just a little more than the area of the state of California. Imagine the population of the United States suddenly losing the land of 49 states, and trying to take up residence within California state lines. This is the harsh reality that Asian elephants are living.
            There are fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild today. Oftentimes people hear this statistic and assume that this is a perfectly stable, healthy population size.  Indeed, 40,000 does seem like a big number, but what about if we compare it to human populations in different parts of the world? Shanghai, China has over 17 million people, New York and Bangkok each contain over 8 million, and Madrid, Spain boasts over 3 million residents. It is not until you start looking at the 500th largest cities in the United States that you even come close to populations of 40,000 people. So when we compare the numbers of elephants to the number of city-dwelling humans the statistics take on a new meaning.
            Finally, how many elephants are we losing as humans continue to eat up land and resources?  This is a scary statistic: we have lost about half the population of wild Asian elephants in just fifty years, about 800 individuals every single year. That would be the same as 3.5 billion humans losing their homes, livelihoods and lives since 1964. In Africa these numbers are even more shocking. In 2012 we lost 30,000 elephants to the ivory trade, which is close to the same as the number of elephants that live in all of Asia. It is estimated that we lose one African elephant every 15 minutes, due to an ever-growing demand for elephant tusks.
            Statistics can help strengthen arguments and offer hard evidence for a cause, but too often the statistics do not convey the full weight of the measurements at hand. We are losing elephants from this world at an alarming rate. Without a serious change in the way we use our planet’s resources and teach our children about the natural world, elephants will likely be extinct in the wild within the next 100 years. The question is, as David Attenborough put it, “… are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?”
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