African Elephant Facts

Scientific Names: Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis

A herd of African Elephants walking

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The African elephant (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis) is the largest land animal on the planet. Found in sub-Saharan Africa, this majestic herbivore is known for its remarkable physical adaptations as well as its intelligence.

Fast Facts: African Elephants

  • Scientific Name: Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis
  • Common Names: African elephant: savannah elephant or bush elephant and forest elephant
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 8–13 feet tall, length of 19–24 feet
  • Weight: 6,000–13,000 pounds
  • Lifespan: 60–70 years
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Habitat: Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Population: 415,000
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Description

There are two subspecies of African elephant: savanna or bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). African bush elephants are lighter gray, larger, and their tusks curve outwards; the forest elephant is darker gray in color and has tusks that are straighter and point downward. Forest elephants make up about one-third to one-quarter of the total elephant population in Africa.

Elephants have a number of adaptations that help them to survive. Flapping their large ears enables them to cool down in hot weather, and their large size deters predators. The elephant's long trunk reaches food sources located in otherwise inaccessible places, and the trunks are also used in communication and vocalization. Their tusks, which are upper incisors that continue to grow throughout their lifetimes, can be used to strip vegetation and dig to obtain food.

Habitat and Range

African elephants are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where they typically live in plains, woodlands, and forests. They tend not to be territorial, and they roam large ranges through several habitats and across international borders. They are found in dense forests, open and closed savannas, grasslands, and in the deserts of Namibia and Mali. They range between the northern tropics to the southern temperate zones in Africa and are found at the ocean's beaches and on mountain slopes and elevations everywhere in between.

Elephants are habitat modifiers or ecological engineers that physically alter their environments affecting the resources and changing the ecosystems. They push over, debark, break branches and stems, and uproot trees, which causes changes in tree height, canopy cover, and species composition. Studies have shown that the changes generated by the elephants are actually quite beneficial to the ecosystem, creating an increase in total biomass (up to seven times the original), an increase in nitrogen in the content of new leaves, as well as an increase in habitat complexity and food availability. The net effect is a multilayered canopy and a continuum of leaf biomass supporting their own and other species.

Panoramic Shot Of Elephants On Field Against Sky
 Edwin Godinho / EyeEm / Getty Images

Diet

Both subspecies of African elephants are herbivores, and most of their diet (65 percent to 70 percent) consists of leaves and bark. They will also eat a wide variety of plants, including grass and fruit: Elephants are bulk feeders and require an enormous amount of food to survive, consuming an estimated 220–440 pounds of forage daily. Access to a permanent source of water is critical—most elephants drink frequently, and they need to obtain water at least once every two days. Elephant mortality is quite high in drought-affected regions.

Behavior

Female African elephants form matriarchal groupings. The dominant female is the matriarch and the head of the grouping, and the rest of the group consists primarily of the female's offspring. Elephants use low-frequency rumbling sounds to communicate within their groupings.

In contrast, male African elephants are mostly solitary and nomadic. They temporarily associate with different matriarchal groups as they seek mating partners. Males assess each other's physical prowess by "play-fighting" with one another.

Male elephants' behavior is linked to their "musth period," which typically takes place during winter. During musth, male elephants secrete an oily substance called temporin from their temporal glands. Their testosterone levels are as much as six times higher than normal during this period. Elephants in musth can become aggressive and violent. The exact evolutionary cause for musth is not definitively known, though research suggests that it may be linked to the assertion and reorganization of dominance.

Reproduction and Offspring

Elephants are polyandrous and polygamous; mating happens year round, whenever females are in estrus. They give birth to one or rarely two live young about once every three years. Gestation periods are approximately 22 months long.

Newborns weigh between 200 and 250 pounds each. They are weaned after 4 months although they may continue to take milk from the mothers as part of their diet for up to three years. Young elephants are tended by the mother and other females in the matriarchal grouping. They become fully independent at the age of eight. Female elephants reach sexual maturity at about 11 years of age; males at 20. The lifespan of an African elephant is typically between 60 and 70 years.

Baby Elephant at Virunga National Park
 Patrick Robert - Corbis /Getty Images

Misconceptions

Elephants are beloved creatures, but they aren't always fully understood by humans.

  • Misconception: Elephants drink water through their trunks. Truth: While elephants use their trunks in the drinking process, they don't drink through it. Instead, they use the trunk to scoop water into their mouths.
  • Misconception: Elephants are afraid of mice. Truth: While elephants may be startled by the darting movement of mice, they have not been proven to have a specific fear of mice.
  • Misconception: Elephants mourn their dead. Truth: Elephants demonstrate an interest in the remains of their dead, and their interactions with those remains often seem ritualistic and emotional. However, scientists have not yet determined the precise cause of this "mourning" process, nor have they determined the degree to which elephants understand death.

Threats

The main threats to the continued existence of elephants on our planet are poaching, habitat loss, and climate change. In addition to overall population loss, poaching removes a majority of bulls over the age of 30 and females over the age of 40. Animal researchers believe that the loss of older females is particularly acute, as it impacts the social networks of elephant herds. Older females are the repositories of ecological knowledge who teach calves where and how to find food and water. Although there is evidence that their social networks are restructured after the loss of the older females, orphaned calves tend to leave from their natal core groups and die alone.

Poaching has decreased with the institution of international laws prohibiting them, but it does continue to be a threat to these animals.

Conservation Status

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies African elephants as "vulnerable," while the ECOS Environmental Conservation Online System classifies them as "threatened." According to the Great Elephant Census of 2016, there are approximately 350,000 African savanna elephants located in 30 countries.

Between 2011 and 2013, more than 100,000 elephants were killed, mostly by poachers seeking their tusks for ivory. The African Wildlife Foundation estimates there are 415,000 African elephants in 37 countries, including both savanna and forest subspecies, and that 8 percent are killed by poachers annually.

Conservation tracker guide sitting on the front of a safari vehicle looking at African Elephants in a game reserve
Sunshine Seeds/Getty Images

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