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African Elephant

aka African Bush or Savannah Elephant

Order Proboscidea - Elephants 

Family Elephantidae - Elephants

Scientific Name:  Loxodonta africana


African elephantDescription The African elephant is the largest living land animal in the world.  Coloration is dull brownish-gray, though elephants tend to be the same color as the soil in the area since they are frequently covered with dust and mud.  Weight ranges from 8,800 – 15,500 pounds.  Height at the shoulder can be nearly 12 feet.  The African elephant has an arched forehead and a concave curve to the back.  The large, thin ears are richly supplied with blood vessels for heat loss, and are flapped for this purpose.  The trunk is a fusion of the nose and upper lip with two opposing, fingerlike projections on the end that can pick up an object as delicate as an egg.  It is remarkably sensitive, flexible, and strong.  Uses include breathing, sucking up water to squirt in the mouth, and picking up objects.  Both sexes of the African elephant have two forward-curving tusks.  The tusk is a greatly developed incisor tooth on each side of the upper jaw that grows throughout the animal’s life time.  They are used for fighting, digging, and feeding.  The forest elephant has been treated as a subspecies (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) in the past, but recent research raises the possibility it is a separate species.  They tend to be darker in color and smaller:  height at the shoulder ranges from 7 feet (females) to 8 feet (males).  The brownish, yellow tusks are parallel and point downward.

RangeHome Range:  Historically occurredthroughout all of Africa, but is now limited to preservesand protected areas in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Habitat Type:  Though there is a forest sub-species, the  bush or savannah elephant stays near water sources but roams throughout much of the steppe, scrub, and brush country ofAfrica.


Reproduction:  Gestation averages 22 months (17-25 months is the accepted range).  Females have an estrous cycle of 2 months, and estrus lasts 2-6 days.  Though births may occur at any time of the year, elephants are frequently born at the onset of the rainy season when vegetation is abundant and temperatures are mild.  Most offspring are single births, though twins are occasionally born.  Infants weigh 200-265 pounds at birth.  Newborns can stand after ½ hour and follow the herd within two days.  Young are weaned in 6-18 months, but may still nurse for up to six years.  Calves nurse with their mouth, not their trunk.  Under ideal conditions, males reach maturity at 10 and females at 11, but most males do not reach maturity until 20 and females until 22 years.  Regardless, males are not able to compete for mates until they are at least 20.  Female elephants remain fertile until they are 55-60 years old and produce calves about every 5 years.  Herds consist of a dominant matriarch, adult females, and calves.  Males leave at puberty to live alone or in bachelor herds.  Females in estrus are believed to call males with low-frequency sounds undetectable to humans.  Though several bulls may try to mate with a female, females generally choose older bulls that they have been familiar with in the past.


Diet in the Wild: Grass, leaves, branches, roots, fruit.  


Diet in the Zoo:   Grass hay, elephant grain, vitamins, produce (lots), browse, bread.


General Information:  Elephants are an umbrella species of Africa.  Historically, they have been vital to maintaining the ecology of both the forest and the savannah.  Elephants eat many types of vegetation, and have been known to push over trees to get to branches and roots.  They also are one of the few animals that dig for water.  Elephants use their tusks to loosen soil and their trunk to dig.  Because of these habitat alterations, they have greatly increased the diversity of plant and animal life on the plains.   Until recently, elephants migrated freely over great distances, and their habitat changes did not adversely affect the vegetation in the area.  Now, however, human development has forced elephants into unnaturally small preserves where the elephants do significant damage to the vegetation in national parks and degrade habitat for other species (such as rhinos). 

            They have acute hearing and communicate through a wide variety of vocalizations.  Some are in the range of infrasound extending well below the frequency of human hearing.

            Elephants are highly intelligent and have a complex social structure.  When a member of the herd dies, they cover the corpse with grass and dirt and stay near the grave for several hours.  Herds of elephants usually consist of 10-20 elephants, but herds may come together to form larger (100+) kinship groups during times of abundant vegetation.  The matriarch drives out intruders and holds her position until death.  Her eldest daughter then succeeds her.  Adult males only associate with herds for breeding purposes.  After reaching puberty, male elephants annually enter a condition known as musth, which is evident by secretions from temporal glands, an intermittent dribble of urine, and highly aggressive behavior.  From around age 25-35, musth may last a few days or weeks, but in older males it may last several months.  It is thought that high levels of testosterone cause this state, which allows smaller, younger males to challenge older, larger males (a male in musth can defeat or kill much larger bulls).  Though there is no season for musth, it occurs about the same time of year in each elephant.

            Though illegal, there is still poaching for ivory in elephants.  This is beginning to cause both behavioral and physiological changes in elephants.  Physiological changes include an increase in the once rare phenomenon of tuskless elephants.  Once a detriment, having no tusks is now an advantage.  Also, since female elephants tend to mate with older, larger males (the ones most favored by poachers), some cows are not reproducing, or are choosing less suitable mates.
Predators:   Calves may fall prey to lions or hyenas; adult elephants have no natural predators except man.


Conservation Status:  The ivory trade was banned in 1989, and African elephant populations have increased somewhat since then, but are by no means stable.  Listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN; CITES Appendix l, except some southern African countries, moved to Appendix ll in 2002.


Docentinel. “Tuskless Elephants,” December 1999/January 2000. p. 6


Grzimek’s Animal Life encyclopedia, 2nd edition. Volume 15, Mammals lV, edited by Michael Hutchins, etal. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. 2003 pp161-175


Walkers Mammals of the World Sixth Edition Volume II. Ronald M. Nowak. 1999. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, Maryland.  pp. 993-994, 998-2003.