5 Things to Know About Elephants

Published 06 February 2017

Tessa Watkins

I’ve always loved elephants. For as long as I can remember, I have longed to see one of these magnificent gentle giants in real life. So when the opportunity came up to visit Elephant Hills in Thailand last month, I grabbed it with both hands. What could be better than spending two days washing and feeding 11 Asian elephants, and watching them play happily while surrounded by lush jungle? It is up there with one of the best travel experiences I have ever had; but I also returned home with a new-found knowledge of my favourite creatures. Here are a few of the lessons I learned…

Tessa meets an elephant image: Tessa Watkins

They are huge

This may be an obvious one, but they truly are. Until you see an elephant up close, standing just inches from you, it is hard to fathom just how large they are. At around 11ft tall and weighing about 6,000kg, they could easily seem intimidating if it wasn’t for their gentle, friendly nature. To put it into perspective, at 5ft 5’, I reached the height of their trunks and had to stretch up on tip-toes to touch their ears.

Meeting the rescued elephants at Elephant Hills image: Tessa Watkins

They are hairy and their skin is an inch thick

I admit I felt a bit silly when I had this realisation, but before my trip, I have never been close enough to an elephant to touch it. The skin on their backs is remarkably hairy and coarse, yet behind the ears, it is paper thin and soft. They also don’t have any sweat glands, so they keep themselves cool using their trunks, as well as by capturing water in their wrinkles when they bathe, which evaporates over time. I was fascinated to learn that unlike us, elephants have hair to keep them cool. These sparse hairs transfer heat away from their bodies, so they don’t get too hot beneath the blazing sun.

Elephant close up image: Tessa Watkins

They are hungry and eat 200kg of food a day

Think you know what an elephant eats? Think again! I was amazed by the amount of food they put away in a day – 200kg, to be exact. And they spend most of their day chowing down on plant-based delicacies, eating for around 18 to 20 hours. At Elephant Hills, we were instructed to chop up huge chunks of pineapple, along with bamboo sticks, before feeding each elephant a giant basket filled with fruit. And there were no dainty eaters here – these guys will happily swallow an entire bunch of bananas and a quarter of prickly pineapple. But I quickly learnt that even in the animal world, fussy eaters exist. No matter how many times I passed the bamboo to my elephant, he turned his trunk up at it on every occasion and dropped it on the ground, before hungrily reaching for more bananas.

Washing an elephant image: Tessa Watkins

They like a bath

It is easy to assume that, given their size and wrinkles, elephants can get pretty dirty. And you’d be right. I could have spent all day watching them happily splashing around in a mud bath, spraying water at one another through their trunks and floating across the cool water. Though once they plodded out, they had changed colour completely and were caked in thick mud….which is where we came in. I was handed a sponge, a bucket filled with water and a hose, and quickly got to work scrubbing the elephants clean. They obediently stood still and made appreciative trumpeting sounds when you scrubbed behind their ears and chucked a bucket full of water over their heads. I managed to completely soak myself in the process, but that was half the fun, and it was an experience I will never forget.

Elephants using their trunks as snorkels

They use their trunks to eat, breathe, drink, smell and snorkel

I’ve never fully appreciated an elephant’s trunk until I saw it up close in all its glory, which only served to cement my love for these wondrous mammals. Watching them use their trunks to reach for food, as well as to drink, smell and snorkel, was fascinating. Their sense of smell is estimated to be four times as strong as that of a bloodhound, and they can sniff out water from around three miles away. From trumpeting appreciation to searching out a single grain of rice on the floor, picking up a heavy log and showing affection for one another, the elephant trunk is easily one of the most versatile features on the planet. They even use it to apply mud as a sunscreen! The time sadly came to say goodbye to Elephant Hills, but we had barely made it out of the jungle before I was already planning a return trip to visit my new friends. 

Tessa visited Elephant Hills on a tailor-made version of Round the World Experts' Bangkok, Beach & Elephants holiday. Chat to your Expert for further information and to book. Love elephants? Why not check out our holidays to Africa, where you can spot the mighty African elephant on safari.

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Meeting the Rescued Elephants of Chiang Mai

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