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NATURAL DIET - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment (Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Asian Elephant - Elephas maximus

NATURAL DIET: Asian elephants eat a wide variety of plants including grasses, shrubs, bamboo etc. While more than 100 different species may be eaten, only about 10 to 25 foods are likely to make up more than 8% of the diet. The percentage of grasses versus browse eaten varies seasonally; the nutrient value of grass is greatest early in the wet season, while that of leafy browse is higher in the dry season. Elephants do show choice in feeding: foods eaten do not necessarily match foods available. Crops such as bananas, sugar cane and paddy (rice) are favoured.

QUANTITY EATEN: The daily food requirement for an adult Asian elephants is about 150 kg of food per day, or 60 kg in dry matter terms. About 140 - 200 L of water may be drunk daily. 

STUDY METHODS: Study methods include observation of feeding elephants, examination of an area after elephants have fed there, examination of faeces and examination of stomach contents.

(References are available in detailed literature reports below)

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Natural Diet

Source Information SUMMARY: Asian elephants eat a wide variety of plants including grasses, shrubs, bamboo etc. While more than 100 different species may be eaten, only about 10 to 25 foods are likely to make up more than 8% of the diet. The percentage of grasses versus browse eaten varies seasonally; the nutrient value of grass is greatest early in the wet season, while that of leafy browse is higher in the dry season. Elephants do show choice in feeding: foods eaten do not necessarily match foods available. Crops such as bananas, sugar cane and paddy (rice) are favoured.

General:

  • In Sri Lanka, elephants eat many different grasses as well as bark, leaves, roots and small stems. Favoured foods include bananas, paddy (rice) and sugar cane. (B147)
  • Asian elephants eat a wide range of plant species. While up to 100 different species may be included in the diet 10 to 25 foods provide more than 85% of the diet. Crop plants are among the foods eaten. (B285.w3)
  • Early in the wet season, grasses are more nutritious than the mature leafy browse, of shrubs and trees, and are eaten preferentially. In the dry season the nutrient quality of grass is decreased, but that of leafy browse is higher, since many trees and shrubs flower and come into leaf at this time. (B384.9.w9)
    • In southern India, observations suggest the Asian elephant to eat, overall, about 57% browse and 43% graze; in the first wet season (May - June) grass is most important and makes up about 54% of the diet on average, but as grasses mature this decreases to 44% and in the January to April dry season browse makes up 70% of the diet. (B384.9.w9)
    • In Sri Lanka, Asian elephants in Ruhuna ate grass as nearly 90% of their diet, but in Gal Oya Park it was about 50% of the diet. (B384.9.w9)
    • In the Malaya forests, grass was only 1% of available food but was fed on for up to a third of the total feeding time. (B384.9.w9)
    • Bamboo can be an important food. (B384.9.w9)
  • More than 100 different species of plants may be eaten but only a few species make up the main bulk of the diet. (B384.9.w9)
    • In Sri Lanka, most grasses eaten were short species, although in the winter dry season tall swamp grasses were also consumed. (B384.9.w9)
    • In Malayan forest, fast-growing pioneer species were generally favoured while the dominant Dipterocarpaceae trees were not. In Ruhuna Park Feronia limnnia, a thorny evergreen, was the favourite tree species, while milkberry and the Asian sickle bush were also preferred. (B384.9.w9)
    • In southern India, from the early dry season to the onset of pre-monsoon showers, short grass areas were preferred and acacia species were preferred browse foods; during the May to August rainy season deciduous forests with tall grasses were chosen and following the second rains the short grass areas were returned to. (B384.9.w9) In summer, including the period of south-west monsoons, bamboo, plantains, tall grasses, reeds and lianas were eaten, with the addition of green grasses as the monsoon floodwaters retreated. (B384.9.w9)
    • In Bangladesh, staple items all year included bamboo, plantain, reeds and lianas. (B384.9.w9)
    • Taking characteristics such as protein, calcium, sodium, fibre and silica levels together, it appears that the "ideal" diet for an elephant is composed of a mixture of grasses and browse, at all time of the year. (B386.5.w5)
    • Bark may be eaten for e.g. its fibre content, to balance low-fibre grasses in the wet season, or its high calcium content or other minerals. (B386.5.w5)
  • Elephants do not just eat what is available, but actively choose what to eat. (B451.5.w5)
    • In a study in Malaysia, observing tame elephants free to feed in the forest, grass, although only 1% of available food, made up 33.1% of the diet, indicating that it was sought out. Palms made up 43.9% of the diet (availability 58.6%), forbes 8.1% (availability 6.8%) and trees 14.9% (availability 33.6%). (B451.5.w5)
    • It may be necessary for adequate digestion to have a certain amount of fibrous bulk in the diet; eating bark during the wet season, when much of the diet is young grass, may provide this roughage. (B451.5.w5)
  • In Malaya and Sumatra, one researcher identified as many as 400 food plants for elephants (not all in one place or all eaten by any one elephant group). (B451.5.w5)
  • In Gal Oya National Park, Sri Lanka, 14 grasses, four herbs, three vines and 67 trees/shrubs were identified. (B451.5.w5)
  • The diet includes grasses, bushes and canopy trees, as well as bark. (J359.7.w3)

Individual items that have been identified within the Asian Elephant diet include:

PLANT MATERIAL (Plantae - Plants (Kingdom)):

  • In a three-year study of populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, a wide variety of plant species were eaten, including grasses, other herbaceous plants, vines, bark and roots of certain trees and shrubs, leaves and smaller stems of a wider variety of trees and shrubs. Banana (Musa), paddy (Oryza - rice) and sugarcane (Saccharum) were the cultivated plants fed on most frequently. (J325.125.w1)
    • Most of the species present were fed on. (J325.125.w1)
    • Grasses were an important food source; the most important grasses were Brachiaria, Cymbopogon, Cynodon, Eleusine and Imperata. (J325.125.w1)
    • Apart from grasses, the most important herbaceus plants were the Ipomoea spp. (Convolvulaceae), and Mimosa pudica. (J325.125.w1)
    • Woody vines were eaten occasionally. The bar of Feronia limonia was important in the dry season. (J325.125.w1)
    • Calamus is used more in areas where it is more abundant. (J325.125.w1)
    • More than 60 species of trees and shrubs, from 30 families, were known to be eaten, but not all to the same extent. (J325.125.w1)
    • Fruits were eaten occasionally and generally along with leaves and twigs rather than being picked out. (J325.125.w1)
    • Most of the foods had a calorific value of 3.0 - 4.0 Kcal/gm, with shrubs generally having a higher caloric value than grasses. The leaves of shrubs also had higher protein levels than did the grasses. (J325.125.w1)
  • During a study in southern India, 112 plant species were recorded as being eaten by elephants. However, those eaten most commonly, making up 68% of recorded food species were from limited taxa: order Malvales (families Malvaceae, Sterculiaeceae and Tiliaceae), and families Leguminosae (particularly of the subfamily Mimosoideae), Palmae, Cypraceae and Gramineae. (B386.5.w5)
    • The main grasses eaten were tall grasses Themeda cymbaria, Themeda trianda and Cymbopogon flexuosus. (B386.5.w5)
    • Seedlings, culms and lateral shoots of bamboos (Bambusa arundinacea and Dendrocalamus strictus were eaten. (B386.5.w5)
    • From trees and shrubs such as Acacia, Albizia, Ziziphus and Ficus, leaves and twigs were eaten; twigs may still be eaten in the dry season when there are no leaves. (B386.5.w5)
    • From Acacia suma, Grewia tiliaefolia, Kydia calycina, Helicteres isora, Ziziphus xylopyrus, Tectona grandis and Eucalyptus spp., the bark was eaten. (B386.5.w5)
    • From the shrubby palm Phoenix humilis, both leaves and fruits were eaten. (B386.5.w5)
    • From Limonia acidissima, Tamarindus indica and Careya arborea, among others, fruits were eaten. (B386.5.w5)
    • The succulents Sansevieria spp. and Pandanus spp., and others, were favoured food items, but were not abundant. (B386.5.w5)

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Quantity Eaten

Source Information SUMMARY: The daily food requirement for an adult Asian elephants is about 150 kg of food per day, or 60 kg in dry matter terms. About 140 - 200 L of water may be drunk daily. 
  • Adult Asian elephants require about 150 kg net weight of food daily. (B147)
  • An adult elephant needs 75 - 150 kg (165 - 330 lb) food per day. (B285.w3)
  • Asian elephants in Sri Lanka eat about 150 kg food per day. (B384.9.w9, J325.125.w1)
    • This is about 60 kg dry matter per day. (B384.9.w9, J325.125.w1)
    • At a digestive efficiency of 50%, the estimated food intake would provide 96,000 Kcal/day; the resting metabolic rate of a tame large female Asian elephant has been measured at 65,000 kcal/day, thus this would indicate a daily caloric input only 50% higher than the resting metabolic rate (compared to 100% in ruminants). (J325.125.w1)
  • A growing elephant weighing about a tonne requires about 0.3 kg digestible protein per day; a protein percentage of 6% would be required for this. (B384.9.w9)
  • An elephant requires about 150 kg or more of food per day. (J325.125.w1)
  • In a study in southern India, for tall grasses, the mean clump size was 85 leaves and the mean dry weight of a single clump was 57.8 g in the dry season, 76.5 g in the wet season. The mean feeding rate was 1.7 mouthfuls per minute when actively feeding, or 0.8 mouthfuls per minute for the whole feeding time of 12 to 19 hours per day. It was noted that at this rate of feeding it would be possible for an elephant to eat 1.5% of its body weight in 12 hours of feeding in the dry season and 1.9% of body weight in the same time in the wet season. It was noted that quantities eaten per unit time of browsing may be lower. Crop-raiding elephants were able to eat up to 12 kg (1.5% of body weight) in six to seven hours of intensive feeding. (B386.5.w5)
  • Elephants need 0.3g digestible protein per kilogram of body weight. This would require a level of crude protein in the diet of at least 5%, assuming a food consumption of 15 g dry matter per kilo of body weight and that 40% of the crude protein is digestible. (B386.5.w5)
    • A lower protein intake may be desirable in the dry season when water is less available, since excretion of nitrogen requires water. (B386.5.w5)
    • To maintain tusk growth of 1.4 kg per year, i.e. 3.8 g per day, an intake of 1.7 g calcium per day would be required just for this function. It has been extrapolated, from human requirements, that an elephant may need 8.0-9.0 g calcium per day and a pregnant or lactating cow elephant may need as much as 60 g per day. (B386.5.w5)
    • It appears that elephants need about 75 to 100g of sodium per day. (B386.5.w5)

Water:

  • Adult elephants drink about 140 to 200 L water per day; smaller individuals require less water. (B10.49.w21)
  • Elephants require 80 - 160 L (20 - 40 US gallons) of water per day. (B285.w3)
  • Elephants drink up to 225 L per day and can drink more than 100 L at one time. (B386.5.w5)
  • Elphants drink 200 - 255 litres per day, drinking 50 - 60 L three or four times a day; a single trunkful of water is 6-7 L, even up to 10 L. (J359.7.w3)

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Dietary Study Methods

Source Information SUMMARY: Study methods include observation of feeding elephants, examination of an area after elephants have fed there, examination of faeces and examination of stomach contents.
  • Many studies have been based on examination of contents of faeces, or on feeding time. Both can be misleading and may not match one another. (B384.9.w9)
  • "Handfuls" of food which had, for whatever, reason, been dropped before being placed in the elephant's mouth, were picked up. (J325.125.w1)
  • Direct observations were made of elephants feeding, with the plant species being eaten recorded at intervals of five minutes. In some area, where direct observation was not possible, plots were examined for signs of feeding by elephants on trees and shrubs and the number of branches broken from each individual plant as well as the number of plants of each species were recorded. (B386.3.w3)
  • To determine total daily intake, the estimated mean weight of one mouthful was used together with the rate of feeding and the daily time spent feeding taken from the literature. (B386.3.w3)
  • Qualitative studies on food eaten have been made variously based on:
    • A sample of stomach contents, preferably from the pyloric region, where food items will not have been much digested. (B451.2.w2)
    • Identification of items in droppings: allowance must be made for differential digestion of different items. (B451.2.w2)
    • Observation of elephants eating. Elephants often wave food items in the trunk before placing them in the mouth, but this method requires the observer being able to get sufficiently close to identify the plants, and having the ability to identify them. (B451.2.w2)
    • Observation of vegetation after elephants have eaten. This requires the ability to identify the plants eaten, and to recognise when foliage has been torn down but not eaten, or when it has been damaged by other herbivores, not the elephants. (B451.2.w2)
  • Quantitative studies may be made based on:
    • Estimating the average weight of a trunkful of food, and multiplying by the number of trunkfuls consumed. (B451.2.w2)
    • Weighing droppings and using a ration of food eaten to droppings weight. This ratio is available only from the work of Benedict with a single Asian elephant cow, Jap, fed on hay, therefore its applicability to other elephants in the wild is limited. (B451.2.w2)
    • The weight of stomach contents, as a quantitative index. The Food Intake Index, expressing stomach fill weight as a percentage of live weight, can be used to compare intake between regions and seasons. (B451.2.w2)
    • Available food, estimated using an experienced observer to not only identify edible vegetation but also assess consumable parts of the plants. (B451.2.w2)

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Authors & Referees

Authors Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee Susan K. Mikota DVM (V.w72)

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