On holiday recently, on the Indonesian island of Bintan, I jumped at the chance to get to know more about the elephants there, and have a ride. Being used to a long neck and mane in front of me, it was quite odd to be twice as far off the ground and to have a large, round head with flapping ears in front of me! It was, however, a very enjoyable experience and I was – of course – very interested to learn more about the diet and care of the elephants.
Just like horses, elephants are herbivores. Their mouth, although devoid of biting incisors due to their trunk doing the job of selecting and pulling herbage, contains an impressive set of chewing molars that are many times larger than a horse’s. Elephants have six sets of molars, unlike horses which have just two for most of their teeth, and just one set of molars. Elephants do have a pair of upper incisors; these are the tusks, which, in female Asian elephants are small but in males, grow throughout their lives. The normal Asian elephant diet consists of grass, and shrub and tree browse (including bark), and the elephants I visited were fortunate enough to live most of their time in the tropical rain forest, which is rich in a variety of shrubs, trees and plants. I was struck by the huge, muscular jaw on the elephants, but watching them eat such woody feed material explained their strong chewing muscles.
Elephants’ teeth, just like horses’, rely on the diet they evolved to eat in order to stay healthy and functional. If their diet is too abrasive in their first two years, or not abrasive enough after the age of two, problems with chewing (mastication) can result.
The elephant’s digestive tract is very similar to a horse’s, with a single stomach, no gall bladder, and a hindgut where fermentation of the fibrous part of their diet takes place. Digestive efficiency in the elephant is less than that of a horse, and they need about 10% of their bodyweight in feed daily – compared to a horse’s 2-2.5%.
The elephants’ droppings were very interesting; full of well chewed fibre in the case of those I studied. No doubt the keepers weren’t used to tourists studying the elephant droppings, but as a nutritionist, faeces is all part of the fascination!
As a treat the elephants are given bananas, which we had the pleasure of giving them after our forest ride. The way they gently but enthusiastically took the tiny bananas from our hands with their trunks was fascinating.
It was fascinating how similar the elephant digestive tract and diet was to the horse’s, despite the obvious external anatomical differences. It was a privilege to meet these beautiful, regal animals and learn more about them.