senses and cognition
and in society
Water is essential for elephants in several ways. In hot weather, it helps in maintaining a bearable body temperature. Elephants also become more playful in water, indicating that water is an improtant source of pleasure.
If an elephant cannot be taken to a river or lake during warm weather, it needs access to water in some other way. Spraying oneself with water helps in cooling down.
Throwing dust or earth onto the back also helps a little in cooling down during warm weather. In some elephant camps, the staff punishes elephants for getting dirty, but it actually is a natural elephant behaviour.
A big body means big challeges in heat dissipation. In warm weather, an elephant starts feeling unbearably hot a lot sooner than a human. Shelter from sun and access to water are therefore essential parts of good elephant management.
Why do elephants need to cool down?
Getting rid of excess body heat during warm weather is a lot more difficult for elephants than for people. One of the reasons is their sheer size. The larger an animal is, the less surface area it has as compared to the volume of the body. Heat is produced by the bulk of the body and dissipated through the surface, hence the increasing challenge with increasign body size. The other reason is that elephants have very few sweat glands: only in their feet, in a narrow area around their toenails. Our own ability to dissipate heat by sweating is one of the main reasons we can easily spend time in summer sunshine.
In warm weather, elephants flap their ears more vigorously, but this only gets rid of a small amount of the excess heat. Mostly they have to rely on external means. The most important way is to immerse oneself in water, or to spray water onto oneself with the trunk. Rolling in mud also helps get the skin comfortably cool. If the weather is only moderately warm, it is enough to seek shade below trees and throw dust or earth onto one's back.
Shelter from sun
In hot weather, an elephant does not voluntarily stand in sunshine for a long time. Shade can be provided either by trees or by a roof. A thatched roof is better than a tin roof, because tin gets rather hot during sunshine. The temperature under a tin roof can therefore get higher than in the surrounding air.
With any kind of shade, it is important that the elephant is free to move between shade and sunshine. Some elephants are kept in such a short chains that even if there is a roof, the shadow may be out of reach for part of the day. The ideal solution is a large fenced enclosure, inside which the elephant can move between sunny and shaded areas. If the elephant is kept chained, a long chain is necessary to let it moveaccording to its temperature needs.
The best way for an elephant to cool down is to immerse itself in a river or lake, or to spray and splash water onto itself. When an elephant is bathing, it is important to let it move freely in the water.
Some tourist facilities are increasingly organizing elephant bathing shows for tourists, which is an enjoyable experience for each party concerned - if the elephants are allowed to bathe in their own way. At some facilities, it has instead been turned into a rigorous performance, in which the mahout commands the elephant to lie still for a long time. This is physically very uncomfortable for such a large animal. At some places, this is accompanied by scrubbing the elephant with a hard brush, which can be painful on their sensitive skin. As the elephants stay immobile to avoid getting punished, both the mahouts and tourists are usually unaware that the elephant is actually enduring the ordeal instead of enjoying it.
Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere