More than 1,500 “national” days have been declared, according to the National Day Calendar. For example, January 2 is National Cream Puff Day. March 4 is Marching Music Day. The first Saturday in May is National Start Seeing Monarchs Day. And don’t forget World Emoji Day on July 17. There’s even a National Punctuation Day and an American Business Women’s Day. But a particular day coming up is one I want to specially note, and I hope you will, too.
September 22 is National Elephant Appreciation Day. I think I first became enchanted with elephants when I was just learning to read as a child. I received a copy of the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hatches the Egg when I was about four years old. Over the years, I must have read that book thousands of times, and now I’m reading it—the exact same copy of the book—to my granddaughter. Down through the years, it’s come a long way with me.
The start of my fondness for elephants isn’t so different from that of the National Elephant Appreciation Day’s founder. A man named Wayne Hepburn, owner of Mission Media, a graphics and publishing company, originated the day in 1996 after he received an elephant paperweight as a gift from his young daughter. After that, his personal fascination with the pachyderms continued to grow.
So, why should we honor elephants each year on September 22? For a lot of reasons—probably for more of them than you currently know.
“An elephant’s faithful, 100 percent”
Since 1940, “Horton Hatches the Egg” has remained a popular children’s book in the United States.In Dr. Seuss’s 1940 book Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton—a kind and genial elephant—is tricked by a lazy, irresponsible bird named Mayzie into sitting on her egg while she goes off to take a “permanent vacation” in Palm Beach, Florida. Horton endures a number of hardships but persists in the task he promised to do, often stating, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, 100 percent!” Ultimately, the egg hatches, revealing an elephant-bird, a baby animal with a blend of Horton’s and Mayzie’s features.
The story, surprisingly, is based on facts. Elephants do develop remarkably close and strong family bonds. Led by a matriarch, elephants group themselves (usually 10 to 70 individuals) into complex social structures of females and calves. Male elephants tend to live in isolation. A single calf is born to a female once every four to five years and after a gestation period of 22 months—the longest of any mammal. These calves stay with their mothers for years and are also cared for by other females in the group.
As for “faithfulness,” or what I like to think of as keeping a promise, there is a lot research that proves that elephants have terrific memories.
Scientists believe elephants’ great memories have something to do with their physically large brains. An average adult African elephant’s brain weighs approximately 10.5 pounds—the largest of all land mammals. In comparison, according to the University of Washington, the brains of humans and bottlenose dolphins—two other mammals considered to be “smart”—weigh about three pounds. Of course, a large brain doesn’t necessarily mean an animal will be intelligent.
Researchers have found, however, that elephants exhibit many behaviors that reveal substantial intelligence, as well, including altruism, grief, mimicry, play, self-awareness and tool use.
In 2007, researchers at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland place urine samples in front of female elephants at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. When the animals smelled urine that didn’t come from an elephant in their herd, they “acted up,” according to the scientists, who concluded that elephants can recognize and track as many as 30 of their companions.
And, elephants don’t just remember the individuals with whom they’ve spent long stretches of time. There have been reports of elephants forming lifelong friendships with each other. In 1999, an elephant that was at a sanctuary became very animated when a new elephant arrived. After looking into the animals’ backgrounds, sanctuary workers discovered that the two had performed with the same circus for only a few months—23 years earlier.
Such superb memories help elephants stay alive in the wild. One of the best examples of elephant cognition comes from desert-dwelling elephants, where matriarchs have proved that they remember where reliable water can be found and are able to guide their herds to it over very long distances and over the span of many years. Studies have also shown that matriarchs who have lived through dry spells before will lead their herds to more fertile land, while younger matriarchs who haven’t experienced a drought are more likely to stay put.
Reasons for recognition
“Faithfulness” to family and friends and the ability to remember are not the only reasons to esteem elephants. Here are just a few more:
• Elephants console each other in times of stress. Elephants “hug” by putting their trunks in each other’s mouths, offering comfort through physical contact.
• Elephants “mourn”—or at the very least show an interest in—their dead. Wild mother elephants have been seen grieving over stillborn calves, and some elephants have even been spotted returning to and lingering for days on end near spots where their friends and family members have died. Later, they may return and pay homage to their bones.
• Elephants can listen with their feet. African elephants can detect rumbling in the ground with sensory cells in their feet. The vibrations travel through their bodies to their inner ears. It’s speculated that elephants use these vibrations to communicate with each other over long distances.
• Elephants are environmentally minded. Elephants are a keystone species, which means that they’re integral to the places where they live. They disperse seeds and create clearings by breaking up thorny bushes, pulling down trees and trampling, which encourages grasslands and plant biodiversity; and they dig wells, providing access to water, which makes it easier for other animals to survive in their environments, too.
Problems for pachyderms
Sadly, today elephants face a variety of challenges. The most urgent threat is large-scale poaching to supply the illegal ivory trade. In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade in ivory. However, there are still some thriving but unregulated domestic markets in a number of countries. Growing demand from affluent Asian countries is driving up the rate of poaching; and in some nations, political unrest contributes to elephant poaching. World Wildlife Fund supports the 2016 U.S. regulations regarding elephant ivory and would like to see countries that still have legal domestic ivory markets, such as Thailand, institute similar laws as a solution for ending this illegal practice.
Others threats that both African and Asian elephants face include habitat loss and degradation. Expanding human settlements, plantation development and the construction of infrastructure, such as canals, pipelines and roads, cause elephants to lose their habitats and ancient migratory routes. As a result, the level of human-elephant conflict rises as elephants are forced to try to access other resources.
Those who support National Elephant Appreciation Day suggest that on September 22, you do something elephant-themed, such as symbolically adopting an elephant or contributing to World Wildlife Fund’s Back a Ranger program.
Me, well, I’m going to pull a well-worn and time-tested book off my shelf and reread a story about a certain elephant I first met so many years ago.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,