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The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest and heaviest terrestrial mammal in Africa and has an extensive range from south of the Sahara Desert to South Africa. 

Elephants are adaptable and can survive in different habitats such as savannas, forests, deserts, riverine and wetlands. Male elephants, called “bulls” are much larger than female elephants, called “cows”. The average shoulder height of an adult bull is 3.75m and a cow is 3.0 metres. Adult bulls can weigh as much as 7000kg; cows average a mass of 3700kg. Their large sizes have earned them the endearing name of “Jumbo”. Another characteristic exhibiting sexual dimorphism between genders is that bulls have a more rounded forehead whilst female foreheads are more pointed.

Tusks are modified incisors. Shape and size can vary considerable in elephants. In areas that have nutritional deficiencies tusks are usually chipped and broken off and in some individuals tusks may even be absent. Tusks are used extensively to aid feeding and for self protection. An elephant may favour a certain tusk, almost human like “left or right handed” where the favoured work tusk is called the slave tusk and the remaining task is called the master tusk.   

The long trunk is very characteristic and a specially adapted feature for elephants to use when feeding, drinking, scent detecting and communicating.  It is very muscular and extremely dexterous. Elephants use their trunks to break branches when browsing and trunks can lift a considerable weight.

A large part of an elephant’s diet is made up of grass, especially in the rainy seasons when grasses are green and lush. Being mixed feeders elephants are also able to browse which they will do when grass is in short supply. Large trees are often pushed over to gain easier access to the branches. As much as 225 kgs of food can be consumed in a day. Elephants also eat fruits, bark, roots and shrubs. Their raiding of agricultural crops of citrus and sugar cane are notorious outside protected areas. Where their range overlaps with marula trees they will devour marula fruit in season. Water consumption can be up to 180 litres per day.   

Social behaviour is well defined and driven by a family nucleus lead by an adult cow, known as the matriarch. This family unit, often referred to as a “breeding herd” will consist of the matriarch and her closest relatives, the average family breeding herd numbering between 12 -15 individuals. The matriarch is highly protective over her family and is responsible for leading this group to good feeding grounds, water and shelter. Adolescent bulls leave the herd to form bachelor groups and when much older bulls may often choose to range on their own. When an older bull is accompanied by younger bulls, learning the ways of the world from their elder, the younger bulls are referred to as “askaris” I believe meaning “young warriors”.

Sexual maturity takes place between 9-12 years. Mating occurs only once a cow is in estrus when a bull in musth (a state of high testosterone level) will find her to determine her state of readiness to mate, copulate and then move on again. In natural functioning elephant populations, bulls may be in their forties before mating for the first time. Clashes between dominant bulls fighting over mating or territorial rights can be fatal.

Gestation is a lengthy 22 months after which a 100kg calf is born. The calf is precocial meaning that very soon it can walk on its own and begin following the herd. Newly born calves are vulnerable to predation from lions and crocodiles. The mother suckles the calf for up to five years, even though the calf commences feeding on solids from six months old. The calf depends on its mother for protection for at least 8 years.

More interesting elephant facts:

  • In terms of conservation status the IUCN red data list classifies African elephants as vulnerable. 
  • The extra large ears are special adaptations to aid cooling and thermo regulation.
  • 3 sets of molars follow the initial milk teeth.
  • Death in old age is usually caused by malnutrition due to worn molars and poor food digestion.
  • Elephants cover large distances and aid seed dispersal and germination through their dung.
  • Man is their top predator, through hunting and habitat destruction.
  • Some lion prides are known to be specialist elephant hunters.
  • Elephants have soft pads underneath their feet which are sensitive and why they don’t walk over sharp stones and  protruding objects.
  • Longevity in the wild is about 60 years.
  • The Forest elephant is a species Loxodonta cyclotis.
  • Mud and sand bathing is practiced for protection against ecto-parasites and the sun.
  • Elephants can communicate in sub tones inaudible to the human ear.
  • It is thought that elephants have an ability to mourn death.


Text by John Llewellyn (facts found on the Internet) and pictures by Ingwe photographers