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World Elephant Day: Facts, Figures and Conservation

Aug 12, 2014 12:49 PM EDT

August 12 marks World Elephant Day, an international event dedicated to the preservation and protection of this endangered animal.

The day was created in 2012 by Canadian filmmaker and elephant advocate Patricia Sims, and the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation in Thailand, according to the event's Facebook page. Now over 65 wildlife organizations across the world support the event, which is meant to spread awareness and knowledge about the plight of both African and Asian elephants.

The largest land mammal on Earth, the African elephant weighs up to eight tons, the World Wildlife Fund reports. It's distinguished by its massive body, ears and trunk, which is used to for various things, like picking up objects, and serving as a horn to trumpet warnings as well as a hose for drinking water and bathing.

Meanwhile, Asian elephants are much smaller in size and lack the iconic fan-shaped ears of the African species.

Elephants can be distinguished by the number of toes on their feet. The Asian elephant has four toes on the hind foot and five on the forefoot, while the African elephant has three on the hind foot and five on the forefoot.

These floppy-eared tuskers are also surprisingly similar to humans. According to Discovery News, they experience self-awareness, grief and empathy, are highly intelligent, and have complex social structures, just to name a few.

Female elephants travel in herds of about 10 individuals and are led by the most experienced matriarch, while males tend to live in isolation. These massive mammals also need plenty of space to roam and feed - they consume hundreds of pounds of plants a day.

Both African and Asian elephants face extinction, with African elephants classified as "vulnerable" and Asian elephants as "endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List.

The current population estimates are about 400,000 for African elephants and 40,000 for Asian elephants, according to the World Elephant Day website, though some believe these numbers are being generous given the amount of illegal poaching that occurs.

The demand for ivory on black markets, which is predominant in China, is fueling illegal poaching. Nature World News recently reported that 30,000 elephants are killed each year for their prized tusks.

Conflict with humans is also a significant concern. As human populations increase and forest cover decreases, elephants are quickly losing ground. These animals have habitat that ranges over 14 countries across Asia.

Elephant numbers have dropped 62 percent within the last decade, and without help, they could be mostly extinct by the end of the next. World Elephant Day pledges to bring "people together to help conserve and protect elephants from the numerous threats they face."

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