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African Elephant: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Roaming across the diverse landscapes of Africa, the African elephant holds the title of the largest land animal on Earth. These majestic giants are a sight to behold, I can tell you that the first time I saw wild African elephants is a moment that will remain in my memory for the rest of my life! Their immense size is matched only by their intelligence and complex social structures.

This guide will take you on a journey into the world of the African elephant, exploring its characteristics, behaviors, and the threats they face.

We’ll delve into their fascinating life, and learn why their conservation is crucial not just for the species itself, but for the ecosystems they inhabit.

The African Elephant at a Glance

Classification

Kingdom:Animalia
Phylum:Chordata
Class:Mammalia (Mammals)
Order:Proboscidea
Family:Elephantidae
Genus:Loxodonta
Species:L. africana and L. cyclotis

Essential Information

Average Size:Height at shoulder: 8.2 – 13 ft
Average Weight:2.5 – 7 tons
Average Lifespan:Up to 70 years in the wild
Geographical Range:Sub-Saharan Africa
Conservation Status:The African Savanna Elephant is Endangered (IUCN Red List)
The African Forest Elephant is Critically Endangered (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

Under the common name of African elephants, there are two recognized species: the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the African savannah (or bush) elephant (Loxodonta africana).

The savannah elephant is the larger of the two species and tends to have tusks that curve outwards, while the forest elephant is smaller with straighter tusks that point downwards. Their ears also differ slightly in shape and size.

In addition to these physical differences, their habitats differ as well. As their names suggest, savannah elephants are found in grasslands and desert environments, while forest elephants inhabit the dense rainforests of Central and West Africa.

African elephant in water

Description

African elephants are recognized by their large ears which are shaped much like the African continent, and their long, curved tusks which are actually elongated incisor teeth. These elephants also have a distinct ‘humped’ shape to their back, and their skin is a grayish-brown color.

One of the most distinctive features of an elephant is its trunk. An elephant’s trunk, a fusion of its upper lip and nose, is a versatile tool used for communication, handling objects, and as a snorkel when swimming.

Sexual dimorphism is seen in this species, with males significantly larger than females. Additionally, males have larger tusks than females, which continue to grow throughout their lives.

Habitat and Distribution

African elephants inhabit a wide variety of African ecosystems, from savannas and deserts to marshes and forests, highlighting their adaptability. Their geographical range extends over 37 African countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The habitat choice depends on the species. Savannah elephants are more widespread across Africa, commonly found in savannas, grasslands, and deserts. In contrast, forest elephants, as their name implies, inhabit the dense forests of Central and West Africa.

While they are highly adaptable, African elephants require a plentiful supply of food and water, and as such, their distribution is significantly influenced by the availability of these resources. Their migrations and movements often reflect seasonal changes in resource availability.

Africans elephants interactingSource: Richard Gillin / Flickr

Behavior

African elephants are generally active during both day and night, but they rest during the hottest part of the day. Elephants are social animals and have a matriarchal herd structure, with groups typically comprising related females and their offspring.

Male elephants, or bulls, usually live solitary lives or form small groups with other males once they reach maturity and leave their birth herd.

Communication among elephants is sophisticated, consisting of a wide range of sounds (including infrasound that travels over long distances), touch, body language, and chemical signals.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

As herbivores, African elephants have a diverse diet that includes grasses, leaves, bamboo, bark, and fruits. They use their long trunks to gather food and deliver it to their mouths, and their tusks to dig for roots or strip bark from trees.

Due to their large size, African elephants must spend a considerable amount of time eating – up to 16 hours per day. In that time, an adult can consume up to 375 pounds of food.

Predators

Due to their large size, adult African elephants have very few natural predators. However, lion prides and crocodiles can be a threat to younger or weaker individuals. Despite this, the primary threat to African elephants comes from humans, in the form of poaching and habitat destruction.

African elephant with baby

Reproduction and Life Cycle

African elephants have a complex and slow reproductive cycle. Females usually start breeding at around 10 to 12 years old, and they give birth to a single calf (twins are extremely rare) after a lengthy gestation period of 22 months – the longest of any land animal.

At birth, elephant calves already weigh some 200 pounds and stand about three feet tall. After birth, calves are closely looked after not just by their mothers but by other females of the herd as well. They are weaned at 2-3 years but may remain with their mothers for up to 10 years, learning the complex social behaviors of elephants.

Males, on the other hand, leave their birth groups at puberty, and adult males usually lead solitary lives or live temporarily with other males in “bachelor herds.”

Conservation and Threats

The two African elephant species are currently listed as Endangered and Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Their populations have been declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as poaching for ivory and meat.

Conservation efforts for African elephants are multifaceted and include anti-poaching patrols, ivory trade regulation, habitat management, and research for a better understanding of their biology and ecology.

National parks and reserves across Africa also provide some protection. Still, human-elephant conflict remains a significant problem as elephants can cause substantial damage to crops and infrastructure.

Conservation efforts therefore also involve community-based programs to manage these conflicts and ensure coexistence. Despite the challenges, many dedicated individuals and organizations continue to work tirelessly to ensure the future of the African elephant.

Fun Facts

  1. Intelligence: African elephants are known to be highly intelligent. They have the largest brains of any land animal and demonstrate a wide range of emotions and behaviors, including grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, art, play, a sense of humor, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and communication.
  2. Trunk Power: An elephant’s trunk is incredibly versatile and strong enough to lift objects weighing as much as 400 pounds.
  3. Skin Care: Elephants love bathing in mud and water, not just for fun, but also because it provides a protective layer that helps shield them from the sun and insect bites.
  4. Long Lives: African elephants are among the world’s longest-lived animals, with average lifespans of up to 70 years.
  5. Indispensable Giants: Their large size and habit of pushing over trees and uprooting stumps to feed make elephants crucial players in shaping their habitats. They create clearings in the vegetation, which helps a variety of plant and animal species.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do elephants have big ears?

Elephants have big ears to help dissipate their body heat. The ears are thin and full of blood vessels, and when flapped, they can cool down an overheated elephant.

Why are elephant tusks so valuable?

Elephant tusks are made of ivory, a material highly prized for its beauty, durability, and suitability for carving.

How much does an elephant eat in a day?

A fully grown elephant consumes 300-375 pounds of food in a single day.

How do elephants communicate with each other?

Elephants communicate using a range of vocalizations (including low-frequency infrasound), body movements, touch, and chemical signals.

How can we help conserve African elephants?

Support and donate to organizations that are working to protect African elephants, learn more about these creatures and share your knowledge with others, refrain from buying ivory products, and encourage responsible tourism if you ever plan a visit to see these animals in the wild.

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