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A Guide to the African Elephant - Loxodonta africana of South Africa

The African Elephant is the largest living land animal (measured at shoulder): huge, impressive and majestic beasts, they have earned their place as one of Africa’s 'Big 5'. They are also highly intelligent gentle giants with a strong sense of family and herd, and a complex social structure. The lumbering gait of this towering, tusked monolith of the African veld, is one of the truly unforgettable sights in the arena of southern African wildlife. Usually a gentle, mild-mannered vegetarian, the elephant is quite capable of killing other animals such as antelope, and even hippopotamus, in its pursuit of water.

Whenever they reach water, which may be daily, or in drier areas only every third or fourth day, they bathe, either spraying themselves or lying down in the water. Sometimes they submerge completely, with only the tip of the trunk showing. They are very relaxed in water, and move through it either by swimming or by walking on the bottom while using their trunks as a 'snorkel'.

Elephants are incredibly social animals: they form strong, long-lasting bonds within their herd. They adopt orphaned calves, help injured elephants and work together. They have surprisingly complicated behavioural patterns and interactions. An injured member may be helped to its feet and supported by other herd members: if it is badly wounded, it may be vigorously defended by the herd, with even the calves taking part. Although elephants are normally peaceful individuals, they can be aggressive and extremely dangerous, especially if they are sick or injured. Females in groups with young are particularly unpredictable, as are males in musth.

Elephants have a thick layer of cartilage under their feet, which functions as a shockabsorber: when on the ground, the soles splay out, and when the foot is lifted, they shrink: this enables the elephant to walk without making a sound, in spite of its great size. Although elephants can run at a speed of about 40 km/hr, its vast bulk prevents it from jumping even a small ditch.

The trunk is an amazing organ of extreme dexterity: it is the single most important feature of an elephant, and gives the Order Proboscidea its name. It is actually a fusion between the nose and upper lip, and consists of some 100 000 muscle units, which allow the elephant to move the trunk with such a wide range of movement. Elephants use their trunks to, among other things: breathe through, smell with, to pick up water to drink (the trunk can hold 8.5 litres), to pick leaves, fruit, etc., either off trees or off the ground, to cover themselves with mud, water or dust, and to communicate with each other, via touch, smell and the production of sound. It is also used for lifting objects and as a weapon. African elephants have two 'fingers' at the tip of the trunk, which are fleshy, mobile and very sensitive.


The African elephant has a broader range of habitats than almost any other large mammal. They occur in such diverse areas as the coastal Namib Desert, as well as high rainfall areas with lush bush, heavy grass cover and forested areas, and have even been found in caves. A supply of fresh water is an essential habitat requirement, as elephants require vast amounts of water; adequate shade is also important. Elephants mould landscapes: clearing vegetation, dispersing seeds and creating habitats for other wild species.

Feeding & Diet

African elephants spend about two thirds of their time feeding, and consume about eight percent of their body weight daily - generally about 200 - 250 kg of food each day, depending on their body weight. They often uproot small trees and severely damage large ones in their quest for food, thereby modifying their habitat.

This versatility is largely possible due to the trunk, which results in an ability to exploit a variety of food sources that is unique among land animals. Apart from food, elephants require large amounts of water, will cover vast distances in order to reach it, and will drink at least once a day, and sometimes several times a day. They also require salt and other minerals, and often dig for minerals in rich soil: they also prefer water that contains large amounts of minerals, and will drink selectively from different waterholes.

Elephants deposit large amounts of dung each day, which plays a major role in the recycling of nutrients. Many seeds not only get dispersed by elephants, but have a greater chance of successful germination after passing through an elephant gut.

Senses & Communication

Elephants are very vocal creatures: they rumble, squeak, trumpet, gurgle and chirp, as well as communicating with body language, such as by shaking the head, spreading the ears, raising the trunk etc. Much of their communication cannot be heard by humans, as they make low frequency rumbling noises that can travel for kilometers.

Elephants have an acute sense of smell, and communicate by smell and touch - often one elephant will place its trunk into another’s mouth in order to greet it or reassure it in moments of stress. Elephants also often raise the trunk in order to test the air. Compared to the size of their heads, elephant's have small eyes with long lashes, and their sense of sight is fairly poor.

Reproduction & Family Life

Family groups are the basis of elephant society, and consist of herds of females. A group can be as small as 3 or 4, or as large as 25 or more, although in times of plenty several family groups may join together to form large herds, sometimes containing hundreds of individuals. Herds are matriarchal: females spend their lives with the herds into which they were born, and the social structure of the herd revolves around the cows, who wield the power in elephant society.

Adult bull elephants go through musth, a specific reproductive condition, about once a year, and this state may last for only a few days, or for three months or longer. The musth glands, or temporal glands, swell and secrete a liquid: this can often be seen as a thick secretion running down the side of the elephants face. There is an increase in the male sex hormones during this time and the bull may become aggressive and unpredictable; the search for a mate is also intensified. Musth bulls often issue a specific low rumble, which is often answered by a female calling back. Older bulls may actually cause suppression of musth in younger bulls. There is evidence to suggest that musth is a reliable indicator of good condition, as African elephant bulls in poor condition do not come into musth, and wounded bulls may drop out of musth.

Cows usually begin reproducing between the ages of ten and twelve. They produce a single calf at four to five year intervals, and may continue breeding until about fifty. A large family group can include four generations, and cows do not usually become matriarchs until they are 40 or 50.

Elephant calves are usually born during the early summer. A central bond is that between mother and calf, and mother elephants care for their young longer than any other animal, with the exception of humans and some whales. Pregnancy lasts nearly two years, and at birth the calf weighs roughly 100 kg, and stands just under three feet at the shoulder. Calves can continue to drink from their mothers (while also eating vegetation) until the age of three years; in some cases 5 years, although the norm is 2. If a nursing mother dies, her calf may be adopted by other nursing mothers.

Conservation issues affecting elephants

Once 5 - 10 milLion elephants roamed across Africa - in 1979 there were 1.3 million, and in 1989 these numbers had dropped to 600 000. This large drop in numbers during the eighties was largely due to poaching. At the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meeting of October ’89 in Lausanne, Switzerland, the African elephant was placed on Appendix I of CITES, and a world-wide trading ban on ivory and other elephant products was initiated. Appendix I means a species is threatened with extinction and can be traded only if permits are obtained by the importers and exporters, and cannot be traded for primarily commercial purposes.

As pressures from increased land use intensify, combined with the on-going threat of poaching, a major concern is the affect on elephant family groups and social structure: old elephants with big tusks are becoming a rarity, and many old matriarchs on which the family groups depend have died. Elephant groups are now led by younger, less experienced animals who may not know where to go and how to survive when food and water are scarce, and are also more likely to encounter problems with people.