African Elephant Fact File

African elephant Loxodonta Africana

Big breeding herd of elephants. Elephants of all different ages here. Taken in June 2019 in Kruger National Park.

Elephants are the largest living land mammal and animal. Males are usually the largest and can have a shoulder height of 3.2-4m and weigh anywhere in the region of 5000-6300kg (5-6 tonnes). Females can be 2.5-3.4m tall at the shoulders and weigh anywhere between 2800-3500kg. 

Elephants are not easily mistaken for other animals as they are pretty unique in having a long trunk and tusks. Some elephants in certain areas do not have tusks though, but their size and general shape is easily identifiable. African elephants also have large ears which, funnily enough, are in the shape of the African continent (a good indication if you’re not sure which species of elephant you’re looking at in the zoo, although most zoos only have Asian elephants). If you spend lots of time watching elephants, you will notice the ears flap a lot. This is due to them containing lots of blood vessels and the flapping helps to cool the blood which helps to keep the elephant cool. They may also use their trunk to squirt water behind their ears to help cool down. 

There are a number of identification techniques that you can use to identify between males and females and also how old an elephant might be. There are also techniques to identify individuals, but that is only needed when doing very specific research on elephant populations; whereas, the most common thing that people like to know is whether an elephant is male or female and how old it is. To identify between males and females, firstly, look to see whether they are in a large herd. If it is with a large herd and it is a large elephant, it is most likely female. (note: it is sometimes difficult to tell the sex of younger elephants). If the elephant is large and it is alone or only with a couple of other elephants, it is most likely to be male. Another way of identifying the sex of an elephant, is to look at the head shape. Males generally have a rounded forehead, whereas females have a flatter, more angled forehead. Next to each other, male elephants will be larger than the females, although the only time older elephants will be next to each other would be during breeding. 

The elephant on the right has a very flat fave, it’s very angular so we know this one is a female. She is also the largest one in this group so possibly the matriarch. June 2019 KNP

To identify an elephants age, especially a young elephant, comparing its size next to its mother is a good indicator. If an elephant calf is under 1 year, it will fit under its mothers’ stomach. Other age groups are difficult to explain in words, but there is a fantastic diagram showing size and age comparisons in Smithers’ Mammals of Southern Africa A Field Guide. 

If you look at how small the baby is, I would say it would fit under mum’s belly (the large one next to it) so this baby is under a year old. June 2019 KNP

Elephants are able to use their trunk very similarly to a human hand, with the ability to pick up objects ranging from tree trunks, all the way down the scale to small blades of grass. It takes a number of years for young elephants to fully grasp the full use of their trunks, and it is because of this that baby elephants are one of the most entertaining animals to watch. Elephant trunks are pretty much elongated noses with somewhere around 40,000 muscles. The trunk has a few uses, from grabbing branches and fruit off of trees, to sucking up water to spray into the mouth or over the body; and is even used to pick up dust for a dust bath. They have an incredibly good sense of smell which is something to be aware of when on a bush walk and is the reason your guide will try to stay down wind of them so they can’t pick up your scent. 

An elephant using its trunk to drink. June 2019 KNP

As I mentioned, the majority of elephant populations have tusks, and do sometimes serve a purpose, such as resting the trunk, or helping to pull and break grass etc. Some individuals, and even some populations have been found without tusks. The reason behind the tuskless populations is believed to be an evolution due to poaching. It is believed that populations that live in areas with large amounts of poaching developed smaller and smaller tusks over time until they were completely eradicated as a feature. 

Diet and feeding habits: Elephants are herbivores and so their diet is entirely made up of plants. They can consume around 110-135kg a day, with a maximum recording of around 275kg of plant matter in one day. They also usually consume around 100-200 litres of water per day. Elephants are categorized as hind-gut fermenters; this is similar to ruminants; however, they don’t chew the cud or burp, but rather pass a lot of gas. It is estimated that the amount of gas one elephant passes per day could power a car to travel for 20 miles. Their digestion only has about a 50% efficiency which, combined with the amount eaten, adds up to a lot of manure. An elephant can defecate anywhere between 12-15 times per day and that adds up to around 100-115kg of manure a day. 

Distribution of elephants: Elephants once were spread through most of southern Africa, but due to the increase of human populations and the segregation of land, they now have restricted populations throughout the southern African countries. 

IUCN Redlist status: Vulnerable – although the population is thought to be increasing currently (this information was last updated in 2008 however and so needs new research).

Threats: There are many different threats to elephants, the majority of which are due to humans. From habitat destruction right through to poaching, there is a whole range of activities going on that have direct and indirect impacts on the elephant populations. Other impacts come from natural environmental problems such as fires, invasive species, and climate (mostly droughts). 

Breeding behaviour: Elephants generally don’t have a particular season in which they breed, they breed pretty much year-round. Elephants have the longest gestation period of any living animal of 22 months. The elephant calf is around 100kg when it is born and is able to walk after just a few minutes (around 20 minutes after it’s born usually).

Lifespan: The average lifespan of an elephant living in the wild is between 60-70 years. This is affected by external factors, as well as internal factors. Internal factors include the ability to eat nutrient rich foods providing they have healthy teeth.

Elephant teeth:  As well as the modified incisors (tusks), elephants have four molars, one in each corner of the jaw. These molars, unlike our teeth, are replaced throughout the elephant’s lifetime. One molar can average 10-12 inches in length and can weigh more than 3 kg. The molar is perfect for grinding down food due to its shape which is wide and flat. The molars will be replaced six times throughout the elephant’s lifetime; however, once they have worn out the sixth set, the elephant will become malnourished and very sadly die. This is because without its molar, an elephant can’t chew the leaves or bark which is where they get their nutrients from, instead surviving on very soft foods. You will generally see very old elephants near swamps and pans as this is where sludgy soft food is found. This food is not particularly nutrient rich and therefore will slowly cause the elephant to starve. 

Social behaviour and organization: Elephants live in a matriarchal society. This means that the leader (or alpha you could say) of the herd is female. The matriarch is usually the oldest or second oldest female, and the easiest way to tell is that they are normally the biggest in the herd. They are the ones with the most knowledge and experience which they pass on to the next generation. The matriarch knows where all the best watering holes, feeding spots, and resting spots are. Males born into the group will be forced out around the age that they reach sexual maturity (around 12-13 years old, some up to 20 years old) so that inbreeding doesn’t occur. These lone males that have been forced out will usually come together as a coalition and form a bachelor herd. Standard matriarchal herd sizes are about 9-11 individuals, although some can be as small as 2 and some have been seen at 24 individuals. In certain areas, there may be even larger herds. 

This herd here has 13 individuals. June 2019 KNP

There are many different forms of communications amongst elephants. From physical gestures, to sounds. All parts of the body may be used, such as ears, trunk, head, tail, and legs. All of these different parts help with communication amongst individuals, such as bonding behaviours; and are also used when threatened, either by other elephants, a predator, or even a group of people on a bush walk. Some communication is silent to humans but is done through vibrations that they can feel through their feet, often from many miles away, this is known as infrasound. 

This elephant was using its trunk and ears to communicate something. I don’t like to anthropomorphise, but do you think they were waving at me? June 2019 KNP

Interesting elephant facts: 

  • Male elephants are able to itch their bellies with their ‘male appendage’ (this is one of my favourite facts and no one ever believes me until they see it happen, and yes, I have seen it happen more times than I would like to!). 
  • Elephants love marula fruit, but no, it can’t make them drunk. They would have to eat tens of thousands of marulas for it to ferment enough in their gut to make them drunk. 
  • Elephants sometimes get tired from carrying the weight of their trunk and dragging it on the ground and so you will sometimes see them resting it over their tusks.
  • Elephants can be right or left tusked, like how humans are right or left handed. You can tell which side they use more as there will be a deep indent in the tusk. 
  • Elephants have an immense capacity from remembering. This means they can remember food sources they haven’t visited for months, maybe even years. They can remember water sources and even other elephants that they haven’t met up with for a while. The sad part about this though is they can remember traumatic events, such as if members of their herd have been poached. They will often act aggressively towards safari vehicles if there has been a recent poaching incident because they are afraid of the vehicle and what it may contain (poachers). 

Elephants are such wonderful and fascinating animals to watch. Being in the presence of such magnificent animals is pretty breath taking. In all my visits to Africa, I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by them in cars, and be very close to them on foot (For such a large animal they walk very quietly and are very good at sneaking up on you, but that’s a story for another day). Understanding their behaviour is absolutely paramount in making sure a situation doesn’t turn sour and become dangerous. Having been on safari with professional guides so many times, I had a good understanding of what to do when my boyfriend and I went of our very first self-drive safari to Kruger National Park last year. We had some instances of elephants suddenly appearing from behind some very thick bush (yes, elephants are pretty invisible when there’s thick shrubs, bushes, and trees near the road). The key is to not make any sudden movements or sounds when you’ve ended up too close to them by accident. In this situation, we had not encroached their space, but rather they had come into ours as we were on the road first. We just sat there quietly and let them walk by, no revving the engine or shouting at them. We showed respect to them, and therefore, they showed respect to us. Being in such close proximity to them without feeling at all threatened was an honour and a memory I shall cherish forever.

Beautiful elephants. I love the babies so much!!! June 2019 KNP

Information sources:

https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/12392/3339343

https://elephantconservation.org/elephants/just-for-kids/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/a/african-elephant/

Apps. P. 2012. Smithers’ Mammals of Southern Africa A Field Guide

Stuart. C., Stuart. M. 2015. Stuarts’ Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa

Estes. R. D. 2012. The Behaviour Guide to African Mammals

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