The elephant in the room. It’s a phrase used to describe something that obvious and in plain sight, yet never openly discussed.
The elephant, as the largest land-dwelling animal on earth, is impossible to hide. It is one of the most instantly identifiable animals due to its sheer size as well as its trunk: which is a fusion of the upper lip and nose; as well its tusks which are a pair of modified eye teeth.
Speaking of teeth–elephants are big vegetarians. In the wild, they eat a wide variety of plants: from savannah grasses, shrubs and herbs; to woody trees, bark and fruits. Their diet depends on what’s available in their habitat in a given season. They’re also known to be big eaters with an enormous appetite.
There are two types of elephants: the Asian and the African. The Asian elephant is smaller, hairier and has a flatter back than its sibling. In the African species, both the male and female of the species have tusks; but amongst the Asians, only male elephants have tusks.
But due to poaching, an increasing number of African elephants are self-evolving to be born without tusks. Before poaching became widespread, tusks gave the species an evolutionary advantage. They served a variety of purposes: digging, lifting objects, stripping bark from trees to eat as well as defence. The tusk also protected the trunk—another valuable tool for drinking, breathing and eating.
Just as humans are left or right handed, elephants, too, are left-tusked or right-tusked. The dominant tusk is usually more worn down from frequent use.
A herd of elephants usually has between five to fifteen related adult females and their yet-to-mature offspring. The herd is led by the eldest female who is the Matriarch. Female elephants–known as cows–are known to engage in complex intra as well as inter herd relationships.
Although female and teenage elephants are highly sociable, the bull (male elephant) tends to lead a solitary life once it is fully grown. When the bull turns 14, he will leave the maternal herd for good and never return. He may associate with other bachelors like himself or choose to fly entirely solo.
In Asia, elephants had and still have an important role to play in ceremonies, transportation, agriculture and industry. Their most important use, however, was in warfare. Elephants were used both for logistics as well as out on the battlefield.
Due to the great size and strength of the elephant, they are the modern day equivalent of tanks. The war elephant could carry several soldiers in a protective turret. While elephants were slower than horses, they had a devastating impact on infantry and cavalry, especially if the enemy troop had never encountered elephants before.
Against more experienced armies, the elephant was no longer a formidable weapon. Elephants panic easily when fire is used or when the driver was killed. An elephant that is panicked or wounded often ran amok, killing many of its own troops as well as the enemy.
Nevertheless, there never ceases to be strength in size and in numbers. When Alexander the Great reached the Indian subcontinent, he faced armies that had large numbers of elephants. The presence of thousands of elephants was one of the reasons why Alexander the Great decided to retreat.
Apart from the elephant’s role as a war mount, the elephant was also a supplier of ivory. Prior to the invention of plastic, elephant ivory was used to make a wide range of things: from piano keys to small boxes to statues. With the collapse of elephant populations in the 1980s, the UN imposed the first moratorium on ivory sales in the late 1980s.
The ban, however, has been frequently flouted.