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The primary motivation for forest elephant migration is appetite. An adult elephant requires 330 to 375 pounds of vegetation daily, which can take 18 hours of steady foraging in a 24-hour period to satisfy. Even a small herd would quickly drain an area of resources without a timely traveling plan. Fortunately, these giant herbivores have developed a diverse dietary range and conservation measures to help protect the forests they wander through.
Science separates elephants into two main species, Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana). All four subspecies of Asian elephants are forest elephants and inhabit regions in southern, eastern and southeastern Asia. The African branch of the family splits into two subspecies: savanna elephants, found on the plains of eastern and southern Africa, and forest elephants, found in western and central Africa. Asian elephants are smaller and hairier than their African counterparts. The Asian species likely originated in Africa and migrated to Asia.
Moving an Elephant Family
Elephants cluster in family units containing three to 25 members, including mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters and immature male elephants. Males leave the family unit at 12 to 15 years to travel solo or join disorganized groups of other males. Water and food sources along the route often determine the timing and pattern of forest elephant migration. Individual families travel as single, small, efficient units when supplies are scarce, such as during dry season. When food and water are abundant, several families may travel together for the additional protection larger numbers provide for the smaller, vulnerable calves.
Elephants generally travel with a dominant female taking lead in front of the group while another guides from the rear. Other mature aunts, sisters and daughters help keep the youngsters clustered in the center for protection and supervision. Stops are timed to allow young calves to rest and adults to refuel. A mature elephant drinks 18 to 40 gallons of water daily. Asian elephants typically find an abundance of water and vegetation in their tropical forest habitats, traveling between 12 and 31 miles during an annual migration. The long dry spells in some African regions can force migrations of 50 miles or more.
Science considers elephants keystone species, filling unique and crucial roles in their ecosystems. Although they consume great quantities of vegetation, including tree bark and various fruits during migration, forest elephants also disperse seeds in their dung that many native plants and trees rely on for propagation, and other wildlife depend on as primary food sources or habitats. The African forest elephant regularly consumes 500 different species of plants, more than any other animal on earth. Elephants preserve their environments through migratory patterns that enable regions to regrow before herds return from their annual travels.
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