World Elephant Day – 10 Fun Elephant Facts

Due to the field of work I’m in, I am OFTEN asked “what’s your favorite animal?” I always say , “It depends which one I’m standing in front of!” If I’m standing in front of an elephant, it’s an elephant. If I’m standing in front of a manatee, it’s a manatee. It’s simultaneously that simple and that difficult! Turns out, you don’t NEED to decide, and sometimes there are reasons you happen to love two seemingly unrelated animals. I’ve decided to share 10 Fun Elephant Facts in celebration of World Elephant Day, starting with a fact that explains my love of both Sirenia (manatees) and Pachyderms (elephants).

Can you see the resemblance?

1. Elephants are related to manatees
If you take a hard look you’ll see that manatees and elephants have almost-identical toenails. Manatees have a semi-prehensile lip used to tear at greens, like an elephant with their trunk. They both also have what’s called “marching molars”, teeth that rotate and replace themselves!
2. Elephants have around 150,000 muscle units in their trunk
What an incredible muscular system!
3. Those tusks on their side of their trunk are actually teeth!
Technically, those tusks are large incisors.
4. There are three different species of elephant
The species are the African Savannah elephant, the African Forest (or bush) elephant and the Asian elephant.
5. They create their own sunscreen!
By rolling around in mud or throwing mud or sand on themselves they protect their thick skin from the sun’s rays.
6. Their communication is complex.
Not only do elephants vocalize and make the sounds we’re used to like trumpeting, but they can also communicate through sounds that create vibrations in the ground, which they may detect through their feet
7. Speaking of feet – Elephants walk almost silently!
Even the largest elephants, up to 13,000 lbs. can be hard to hear coming. Due to their anatomy, not only are they practically walking on tip-toe at all times, they also have soft padded feet. (Next time you’re wearing slippers, tip-toe around and see if anyone hears you coming.)
8. Elephants are warded off by capsaicin
Elephants’ ability to be silent means they can easily wander through farmland at night. One neat innovation being used to ward off elephants from trampling crops is using capsaicin as a deterrent, since they are very sensitive to the smell & feeling. While that might sound cruel, think about the alternatives. Farmers who have lost their entire crops to elephants will look the other way when poachers come.
9. Elephants hate bees!
Another project being used to ward of elephants from crops is bee hives!
10. Around 90% of African elephants have been wiped out in the past century – largely due to the ivory trade.

To learn more, watch my video:

Some of the clips in the above video come from The Elephant Cafe in Zambia. If you enjoyed reading these 10 Elephant Fun Facts, be sure to read my blog on The Elephant Cafe and why it’s an incredible example of sustainable eco-tourism.

Elephant Cafe – Zambia

I recently had the pleasure of visiting The Elephant Cafe in Zambia. Advertised as “A 5 star Livingstone Restaurant Providing the Ultimate Dining Experience on the banks of the Zambezi”, this spot is so much more than just a culinary experience. There’s no doubt the food was fantastic, but you don’t exactly go to a place called The ELEPHANT Cafe because you’re hoping for some stellar risotto. You go for the elephants.

Before you get to the elephants, however, you have the option to be transported from your accommodation to the Cafe by boat, allowing you to see incredible wildlife from a very special vantage point. The captain of our boat was fantastic and allowed for many stops along the way. Two of these stops ended up providing some of my favorite sights from the whole trip: seeing nesting Maribou stork and watching a giraffe get seemingly lightheaded from standing up too quickly after drinking from the Zambezi River. Once I was finished taking a ridiculous amount of pictures of all those other animals, it was time to see the elephants!

Nesting Maribou Stork

Pulling up to the Cafe, I could hardly control my excitement. I had read everything there was to possibly read about this experience, seen photos & videos from friends who had done it first-hand, and was READY. Elephants have always been my favorite animal (ask me that when I’m staring at a manatee and you may get a different answer- but, ok, we’ll call it a draw) and now I was getting the chance to meet a herd up-close and feed them some snacks.

After meeting the staff and going over the rules, it was time. I was given a bag full of snacks, and chose the elephant I would like to meet first. Each elephant had a dedicated trainer who told us the best way to interact with the individual. It was incredible. I got to feel an elephant’s trunk. I got to put food in its trunk and watch the transfer to its mouth. I got to feel the different personalities of each elephant through their trunks (sounds bizarre, I know!) and how they received their food. The baby (calf) was all over the place, the mature female was very calm and patient, and the bull “Bop” was an insatiable vacuum.

Once the food had run dry (I’m looking at you, Bop) and the sun was going down, it was time for the elephants to go into their barn. Like a well-choreographed ballet, the elephants followed each other into the barn, with a wild hippo as the caboose. (This one hippo apparently comes out of the water each night to join the elephants in their barn, on his own free will). In fact, all of the elephants enter on their own free will, as well.

The Elephant Cafe has trained their elephants using positive reinforcement techniques. This means that if they do what the trainer has asked, the elephant gets a reward. Most often this is in the form of food (because, let’s be real, who isn’t food motivated?!) but can also be in the form of verbal or tactile praise (scratches, anyone?) The elephants never get punished for not doing what the trainer has asked.

Positive reinforcement training is arguably the best way to form a relationship with an animal (think about how you trained your dog – you likely gave a “good boy/girl”, a treat, and pat on the head as they did what you asked.) By using this technique there is a strong sense of trust between the elephant and the trainer, and the results are incredible. All the trainer had to do was ask the elephants to head into the barn and off they went. No physical contact was needed, and the strong bond between trainer and elephant remained.

In a world where photo-sharing apps reign supreme and the phrase “do it for the gram” is all-too-real, it can be hard to wade through all of the different experiences in the tourism industry. There are, unfortunately, some places that do exploit animals to make money in order to provide guests with the “perfect photo”. This is problematic for two reasons: 1- the obvious: exploiting animals. 2- the companies doing it right (without mistreating animals) get lumped into the same category and getting pushed out of existence when perhaps they’re needed the most.

If there is one piece of advice I can give to tourists (and even those discovering new opportunities in the places they call home) it’s: do your research. How do you know you’re visiting a responsible wildlife tourism spot?

  1. Determine if the company uses positive reinforcement training.
  2. Check out any accreditations the company may have.
  3. Read about others’ experiences at the place you’d like to go.
  4. Figure out how many people are allowed to do the interaction a day – generally speaking, the fewer people the better.
  5. Proceed with caution when you see animal interactions advertised as offering the “perfect shot” or “Instagram-worthy”.

I truly believe that positive animal interaction experiences, such as those at The Elephant Cafe, can inspire people to take action to protect species such as the African elephant. If you were wishy-washy about elephants before, didn’t much care for them or know much about them, I have no doubt you’d leave this experience with a new found respect. And where there’s respect there’s potential to protect. And as we journey through this Anthropocene, we’re going to need as many voices as possible for the creatures that have called this planet home for 55 million years.