The African Elephant

Elephant / Big 5 Wildlife

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Proboscidea (Elephants)

Family: Elephantidae (Elephants)

Genus and Species: Loxodonta africana (African Bush Elephant)

Name

The African Elephant is named after the African continent, where they can be found in over 37 countries. There are actually two sub-species of African Elephants, the larger African Savanna Elephant and the smaller African Forest Elephant.

Appearance

African Elephants are easily recognisable by their massive size, wrinkled grey skin, and large, floppy ears that help them regulate their body temperature. They have distinctive tusks, which are actually elongated incisor teeth, and a long, prehensile trunk, a marvel of evolution.

Size

The African Elephant is the largest land animal in the world. These gentle giants are truly magnificent and impressive to behold. 

Shoulder Height:

  • Males: 3.3 – 4 meters (10.8 – 13.1 feet)
  • Females: 2.7 – 3.4 meters (8.9 – 11.2 feet)

 

Weight:

  • Males: 6,000 – 7,500 kilograms (13,200 – 16,500 pounds)
  • Females: 3,500 – 4,000 kilograms (7,700 – 8,800 pounds)
ellies

The African Elephant is the largest land animal in the world. These gentle giants are truly magnificent and impressive to behold. 

An Elephant's Diet

Despite their formidable size and incredible strength, elephants are herbivores. Their diet includes grasses, leaves, fruits, bark, and roots. But keeping up such an incredible body mass requires a lot of work. To sustain their enormous size, elephants must consume one to two percent of their body mass per day.

In the wild, a full-grown male elephant is able to consume up to 250 kgs (600 pounds) of food in a single day, although the average daily food consumption for an African elephant is about 90 to 170 kgs (200 to 350 pounds), making them nature’s ultimate grazers.

Despite the large volumes of vegetation they consume, elephants only digest their food with less than 50% efficiency. Therefore, it’s no surprise that they spend a significant portion of their day (approximately 12 to 16 hours) eating large volumes of vegetation.

Elephant Dung

It’s easy to think of elephants as nature’s answer to a complex and efficient mobile composting system. Despite only digesting half their food, their “waste” is actually a great benefit for the environment. Elephants travel impressive distances – think miles! As they roam, seeds from the plants they eat hitch a ride in their dung and become scattered far and wide. 

This brilliant method of seed dispersal helps restore forests and promotes a diverse mix of plant life across large areas. And, to make it even better, the seeds already have all the nutrients and moisture they need to start growing. Think of elephant dung as nature’s fertiliser capsule. Packed with nutrients, it gives germinating seeds a healthy boost.

So next time you see elephant dung, remember – it’s a sign of a thriving ecosystem, all thanks to these impressive creatures.

Location and Habitat

African Elephants occupy a diverse range of habitats across sub-Saharan Africa, with a historical presence in over 37 countries. The presence of elephants within an area depends on the availability of water and food sources. 

Elephants mostly prefer dense bush and open savanna grasslands with scattered trees and shrubs. In South Africa, elephants are found in game reserves, national parks and protected wildlife areas. 

In the Western Cape, and near Cape Town, the best place to see wild elephants is at Inverdoorn Private Game Reserve, Aquila Private Game Reserve, and Gondwana Game Reserve. Kwa-Zulu Natal’s Hluwuwe-Imfolozi National Park also offers a chance to see elephants in the wild. 

Heading north, Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga and Limpopo (near Gauteng) boasts massive elephant herds. And don’t forget the Eastern Cape’s Addo Elephant National Park, where the name itself promises great elephant sightings!

The Behaviour of Elephants

Elephants are highly social creatures with complex family structures and deep emotional connections. African elephants live in female-led groups called ‘herds’. These tight-knit matriarchal groups often consist of mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts, who can stay together for generations, offering support and protection to each other.

Elephants display a remarkable range of emotions, including grief, joy, and empathy. They mourn their dead with elaborate rituals, trumpeting and touching the bones of deceased family members. They also show compassion towards others in distress, comforting them with trunk touches and vocalisations.

Knowledge and traditions are passed down through generations within elephant families. The matriarch, usually the oldest female elephant in the herd, plays a crucial role teaching younger members essential skills like finding food, navigating their environment, and recognising danger.

Despite their calm and gentle nature, elephants are surprisingly playful creatures, especially young calves. They love to play in the mud, chase each other, and spar with their trunks. This playful behaviour is essential for developing social skills and forming strong familial bonds within the herd.

An Elephant's Trunk

The trunk is a truly remarkable tool, an extension of the elephant’s upper lip and nose fused into a single, powerful appendage. It contains over 40,000 muscles and tendons, granting incredible dexterity and strength. Elephants use their trunks for a multitude of tasks, including:

  • Breathing and smelling
  • Trumpeting
  • Grasping food and water
  • Dust bathing (for thermoregulation and parasite control)
  • Social interaction

An Elephant's Tusks

The tusks are another defining feature of African Elephants. Contrary to popular belief, they are not horns, but rather elongated incisor teeth that continue to grow throughout an elephant’s life. Tusks are used for:

  • Digging for food and water
  • Stripping bark from trees
  • Fighting and dominance displays among males

Territory

Elephant herds have large home ranges that they roam seasonally in search of food and water. The exact size of their territory can vary depending on habitat availability and resource abundance.

Breeding

Elephants have a long gestation period of around 22 months, resulting in the birth of a single calf (twins are very rare). Calves are incredibly dependent on their mothers for several years, learning essential survival skills and social behaviours.

Threats and Challenges

Numbering three to five million in the last century, African elephant populations were severely reduced to its current levels because of hunting. In the 1980s, an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed each year and up to 80% of herds were lost in some regions. In recent years, growing demand for ivory, particularly from Asia, has led to a surge in poaching. Populations of elephants—especially in southern and eastern Africa—that once showed promising signs of recovery could be at risk due to the recent surge in poaching for the illegal ivory trade.

Habitat loss and land fragmentation are one of the biggest challenges elephants face in the wild. African elephants have less room to roam than ever before as expanding human populations convert land for agriculture, settlements and developments. The elephants’ range shrank from three million square miles in 1979 to just over one million square miles in 2007. Commercial logging, plantations for biofuels and extractive industries like logging and mining not only destroy habitat but also open access to remote elephant forests for poachers. 

Facts about African Elephants

Estimates suggest there are around 415,000 African Elephants remaining in the wild.

Elephants communicate through a wide range of vocalizations, including trumpeting, growling, and rumbling sounds.

Trunks are used for breathing, smelling, grasping objects, trumpeting, and social interaction.

African Elephants are the largest land animals on Earth. The biggest animal in the world is the Blue Whale.

Despite their size, elephants can reach speeds of up to 25 miles per hour (40 km/h) in short bursts.

Elephants are typically most active during the cooler mornings and evenings, seeking refuge from the midday sun.

Baby elephants are called calves (singular: calf).