African Elephant

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Loxodonta africana


DESCRIPTION: African elephants are the largest land animals on earth. They are slightly bigger than their Asian cousins and can be identified by their ears which are shaped somewhat like the continent of Africa.  They can reach up to 7,5 m long (246 feet), 3,3 m (108 feet) high at the shoulder and 6 000 kg (6 tonnes) in weight.

The African elephant is an extremely intelligent and incredibly powerful animal. They are very adaptable creatures, as they are able to vary their diet according to what is available in the environment. They easily overcome adverse conditions by moving to new areas, covering long distances to take advantage of remote resources.

HABITAT: There are two subspecies – the larger savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana africana), which roams grassy plains and woodlands and the smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), which lives in the equatorial forests of central and western Africa. Savannah elephants are larger than forest elephants and their tusks curve outwards. In addition to being smaller, forest elephants are darker and their tusks are straighter and downward pointing.

Elephants are a keystone species, meaning that they influence the healthy functioning of ecosystems and even the survival of particular species. Due to their enormous size and energy requirements, elephants alter habitats. They are destructive feeders and push trees over to access green leaves at the top. They debark trees to access the inner cambium layer. These apparently wasteful actions have positive ecological repercussions. Fallen trees provide browsing for smaller herbivores and provide microhabitats for smaller animals. Nutrients from fallen trees are also recycled back into the soil.

DIET: Elephants eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark … and a LOT, at that! An adult elephant can consume up to 136 kg (300 pounds) of food in a single day.

These always-hungry animals do not sleep much, and they roam over great distances while foraging for the large quantities of food that they require to sustain their massive bodies.

REPRODUCTION: Female elephants (cows) live in family herds with their young, but adult males (bulls) tend to roam on their own.

Having a baby elephant is a serious commitment. Elephants have a longer pregnancy than any other mammal – almost 22 months. Cows usually give birth to one calf every two to four years. At birth, elephants already weigh some 91 kg (200 pounds) and stand about one meter (3 feet) tall.

SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR: The complex social structure of elephants is organised around a system of herds composed of related females and their calves. Males usually live alone but sometimes form small groups with other males.

In the savannah subspecies, each family unit usually contains about 10 individuals, although several family units may join together to form a ‘clan’ consisting of up to 70 members led by a female. Forest elephants live in smaller family units.

Elephants are believed to grieve their dead. They pick up tusks, skulls and bones of dead elephants, carrying them around or smelling them with their trunks. Elephants will also go to the aid of the sick or wounded members of the herd.

COMMUNICATION: Elephants can communicate over long distances by producing a sub-sonic rumble that can travel over the ground faster than sound through air. Other elephants receive the messages through the sensitive skin on their feet and trunks. It is believed that this is how potential mates and social groups communicate.

THE TRUNK: The most distinguishing features of the elephant are its long nose (or trunk) and large, floppy ears. The elephant’s trunk does more than smelling and breathing  — it’s also used for drinking, snagging food and sending out loud trumpeting noises.

THE TUSKS: Elephants can hear one another’s trumpeting calls up to 8 km (5 miles) away. Both male and female African elephants have tusks; but only the male Asian elephants have tusks.

The tusks are used for:

  • digging and finding food
  • for chiseling the bark off trees
  • as weapons of defense against predators
  • for fighting (among males)

Did you know?

  • The tusks are the upper incisor teeth and they grow throughout the life of the elephant.
  • Each elephant uses the one tusk more than the other (similar to being left or right handed in humans).
  • The favoured tusk will get worn out more than the other as the enamel wears off.
  • Elephant tusks never stop growing.
  • Older elephants will therefore have the biggest tusks which makes them the priority targets of ivory poachers.