Taxonomy Classification :
Species: africana (Savannah elephant) ; cyclotis (Forest elephant)
Conservation Status :
The African elephant is listed as vulnerable on the World conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red list of Threatened Animals.
Geographic Distribution :
African elephants currently live across 37 countries in sub-saharan Africa, although in two of these countries – Somalia & Senegal their current presence is uncertain.
Their continental range covers approximately 22% of the African continent however only one-third of this range is currently protected.
Large tracts of continuous elephant range remain in parts of Central, Eastern and Southern Africa however elephant distribution is becoming increasingly fragmented across the continent due to human development and activity. Poaching is also threatening the viability of elephant populations in areas throughout Africa.
The countries that African Elephants currently inhabit are : Angola; Benin; Botswana; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Central African Republic; Chad; Congo; Côte d'Ivoire; Democratic Republic of the Congo; Equatorial Guinea; Eritrea; Ethiopia; Gabon; Ghana; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Kenya; Liberia; Malawi; Mali; Mozambique; Namibia; Niger; Nigeria; Rwanda; Senegal; Sierra Leone; Somalia; South Africa; South Sudan; Swaziland (re-introduced); Tanzania, United Republic of; Togo; Uganda; Zambia; Zimbabwe.
Life Span :
On average elephants can live up to 50 - 70 years of age. However poaching and the ongoing clearance of forests and natural habitats which result in human-elephant conflict mean that many wild elephants are no longer reaching this age span.
Female and young elephants live in cohesive family groups called herds. Many of the adult females are related and the herd is led by a ‘matriarch’ usually the oldest or most experienced in the group. The matriarch sets the pace and direction of the herd’s activities and these movements usually depend on food availability.
Male offspring usually leave these family herds between the ages of 12 - 15 to live in bachelor groups or begin a solitary & independent lifestyle. Once mature male elephants only socialise with females when the females are reproductively cycling.
Size & Weight :
Male African Savannah elephants can exceed 6,500kg’s in weight and can reach 12ft in height at the shoulder. Females can exceed 5,000kg’s in weight and can reach 10ft in height at the shoulder.
African Forest elephants are slightly smaller than their Savannah cousins.
Possibly the largest elephant ever recorded was a bull from Angola who topped the scales at 10,900 kilograms. Its skin alone weighed 1,800 kilograms and is now mounted in the Washington Museum.
Intelligence & Communication :
Elephants are extremely intelligent and social animals. The brain of an adult elephant weighs 4.5 -5.5kg’s.
Elephants have a complex repertoire of communication that includes touching, body posturing and vocalising of which most of these sounds are outside the range of human hearing. This is called infrasound and can travel for over a kilometre.
Click on these tabs to listen to some audio clips of elephant communication.
Breeding & Reproduction :
Female elephants sexually mature between the ages of 8 – 10 and cycle every 14 - 17 weeks and once pregnant give birth to a single calf (twins are very rare) after a gestation period of almost 22 months (the longest of any land mammal).
Wild elephant males may not sexually mature until around their 20’s if they are surrounded by larger more dominant bulls. Adult male elephants (bulls) go through periods of heightened sexual activity called musth which is caused by large increased secretions of testosterone. This is a period of increased aggressive and sexual behaviour, secretions from glands on the side of the head (temporal glands), urine dribbling and may last for periods of a few weeks to several months. Bulls do not have to be in musth to breed successfully.
Elephants develop six sets of teeth throughout their lifetime. They have large molar teeth on either side of the upper and lower jaw. Unlike most other mammals, elephant teeth are not replaced vertically but horizontally and as their teeth become older, a new set develop from behind and move forward, similar to a conveyor belt system. These teeth are grown and lost at regular intervals during an elephants lifetime and are a good indicator of an elephants age.
Once the last set of teeth is worn away, the elephant cannot feed properly and unfortunately soon passes away from malnutrition. While each individual is different this usually occurs around 60 years of age.
image : seasonsinafrica.com
An elephants tusks are not molars but giant incisor teeth. They are primarily made of a compound called dentine which is commonly referred to as ivory.
Elephants will most often develop two sets of tusks during their lifetime. The first set of very small tusks referred to as 'milk tusks' often fall out between 6 - 12 months of age which are then followed by the main pair of tusks. These tusks are not replaced but grow continually throughout an elephants life.
The rate of tusk growth in a mature elephant is between 15 - 18 centimeters per year however general wear & tear erodes some of this growth.
As tusks get larger they become a useful tool in prying bark off trees, digging for salt deposits & roots and uncovering water in dry riverbeds.
The largest tusks on official record are the world famous Kilimanjaro tusks that belonged to a bull shot on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) in 1898. They weighed in at 105.4kg's (left tusk) and 103.6kg's (right tusk).
image : Bobby Jo Vial
Heart & Respiration :
The heart of an elephant is huge, weighing 12 - 21kg’s. In relative terms however, it only weighs 0.5% of the elephants body weight which is normal for large mammals (human hearts are approx 0.4% of overall body weight). The average heart rate is 25 - 35bpm but rises if an elephant gets excited.
An elephants respiration rate is only 4 - 6 breaths per minute but can rise to 15 if they get excited. While elephants can breathe through their mouth the majority of air is taken through the trunk.
Elephants have no pleural cavity. Their lungs are attached directly to the ribs by fibrous connective tissue. Elephants therefore breathe by direct muscular action and not by creating negative pressure within the chest cavity as humans and most other mammals do.
The skin on an elephants body varies in thickness from a few millimetres around the ears to almost 3cm’s on other parts of their body. Despite its thickness, the skin is sensitive with sparse hair and bristles all over the body. The wrinkling of an elephants skin enables it to hold 10 times the amount of water that would remain on a flat surface and helps to dissipate heat.
The background image on this webpage is close up of elephant skin show the wrinkles & creases covering their body.
Feeding & Digestion :
Elephants are generalised feeders and consume a large variety of plants, grasses, trees and fruits. By using their trunks they can obtain food anywhere from ground level to high up in the trees. If they can’t reach it and they still want it, they just bulldoze the tree until it falls over. They can spend up to 16 hours a day feeding and adult elephants can consume more than 175kgs of food or approximately 6 - 8% of their body weight each day.
Their digestive system is quite simple and common among mammals. On average it takes an elephant 24 hours to digest a meal. However, they only digest approximately 40% of their food intake with the remaining food passing undigested.
It is has been found that over one-third of the tree species in West Africa rely on elephants to help their seeds germinate by passing through their digestive tracts.
An elephant defecates every 2-3 hours, passes around 50 litres of urine per day and generates approximately 2000L of methane gas each day.
Elephants have excellent hearing. They communicate and are able to pick up sounds well below the range of human hearing. This sound is called ‘infrasound’. The ears of an elephant also function as cooling devices. The skin on the ears is only about 1- 2mm thick which is the thinnest on an elephants body.
Every 20 minutes an elephants entire blood supply, nearly 680 litres passes through the ears intricate network of veins & capillaries and flapping their ears an elephant can cool the blood thereby dissipating heat from the body.
The ears of an African elephant make up one-fifth of its total surface area.
This image shows the underside of an elephants ear with the network of veins.
image : Jeff Vejr
An elephants trunk is the most versatile appendage in the animal kingdom. . An elephants trunk contains no bones or cartilage and recent research work suggests that there are over 40,000 muscle units within the trunk itself.
The trunk of an African elephant has two finger-like processes at the tip, on the dorsal and ventral sides. It is connected to respiration and can be used as a snorkel when swimming, used as a straw for drinking and as both a knife and fork when eating.
An elephants trunk can pick up something as small as a peanut and as big as a tree trunk. It also assists in communication, dusting, smelling, lifting, defence and offence.
Measurements show that the trunk of an adult elephant can hold more than 10 litres of water and a thirsty adult bull can drink over 200 litres of water in less than five minutes.
A young elephant must learn how to use it’s trunk just children learn to use their arms and hands.
The tip of an elephants trunk is 10 times more sensitive than a human finger.
The nasal lining of the trunk contains 20 million scent receptors – over three times that possessed by humans.
This image show the two nostril canals running up the entire length of the trunk.
Feet & Toenails :
Elephants walk efficiently at about 5km/h. They cannot run but speed stride at speeds around 40km/h.
Elephants are very sure footed and have fantastic balance. Although an elephant appears to be flat-footed it actually walks on its toes. The heel is a pad of fatty and elastic connective tissue. As it walks the feet under weight and pressure bulge like a large suction cap and then as an elephant sets off this bulging retracts allowing the foot not to get stuck in muddy or boggy terrain.
It has been found that by measuring the circumference of an elephants front foot and double it, you get the approximate shoulder height of the same elephant. This discovery has been quite useful for researchers in approximating the size and age of wild elephants.
To support their heavy bulk, the limb bones of elephants contain no marrow but are filled with spongy bone.
image : Bobby Jo Vial
image : Zeb Goodell
Elephant eyes are small in proportion to their heads and contain few photoreceptors meaning they cannot see very well beyond a few hundred feet.
It is believed they do not see in colour but in black / white.
image : Gregory Moine