- destruction of their habitat
Elephant reproduction is slow; a female gives birth only every four or five years:
- Usually to one calf at a time
- Twinning occurs in roughly one in 100 births
- Birth weight is around 120kg
Pregnancy lasts about 22 months, and birth, accomplished with the mother squatting or lying, is assisted by other females of the group. The two mammary glands are situated between the front legs (unusual for quadrupedal mammals). Calves suckle until the second or third year or even longer, depending on when the next calf is born. Male calves suckle more frequently than females and, after the first few years, the difference in size between them becomes apparent. Female calves will remain in their family unit for life, eventually taking over its leadership, while males leave at sexual maturity, often aided by increasing impatience of the mother.In drought years, cows are unlikely to come into oestrus, naturally regulating their reproduction. Otherwise, they can conceive at any time of year, but in seasonal environments, a definite peak has been observed some weeks after the onset of the rains. With a 22-month gestation, this ensures that the calf will be born when rainy-season greening has begun two years later, providing the mother with a rich food supply for lactation.
African Elephants are the heaviest land mammals, with males somewhat larger than females. They have enormous ears, and a unique nose that extends from the upper lip as a long, boneless trunk. The elephant’s incisor teeth develop into tusks that can weigh about 60 kg (130 lbs) each.
African elephants were historically found south of the Sahara Desert to the south tip of Africa, from the Atlantic (western) coast of Africa to the Indian Ocean in the east. Currently populations are found in increasingly fragmented habitat throughout the same range, often primarily in and near wildlife reserves and protected areas due to poaching and habitat destruction.
Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )
- Estes, R. 1999. "Elephants, reprinted from "The Safari Companion"" (On-line). Accessed October 5, 2001 at http://nature-wildlife.com/eletxt.htm.
Although large tracts of continuous elephant range remain in parts of Central, Eastern and Southern Africa, elephant distribution is becoming increasingly fragmented across the continent.
The quality of knowledge available on elephant distribution varies considerably across the species' range. While distribution patterns are well understood in most of Eastern, Southern and West Africa, there is little reliable information on elephant distribution for much of Central Africa.
The current range of the African elephant is Africa, south of the Sahara. It occurs in about 35 African states.The species formerly extended into North Africa up to the Mediterranean coast. In West Africa, only thinly scattered, small populations remain. Central African rainforests still harbour substantial, largely continuous populations of L. a. cyclotis.Savannah elephants, L. a. africana, occur in East and southern African savannas down to northernmost Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa (with a large gap in central Angola and neighbouring areas).
Although occupying exclusively tropical and subtropical zones, African elephants live in a wide range of habitats, including:
- Evergreen forests
- Dry deciduous forests
- Savannas (mixed woodland and grassland mosaics)
Are elephants changing their own environment?
Elephants’ habit of destroying trees has led to debate about their role in changing their own environment. In some parts of Africa, elephants have transformed wooded areas into open grassland. However it us likely that, originally, such phenomena formed part of a natural cycle, with long-term balance between different habitats.If a high number of elephants in one area caused a reduction in the tree density, either the elephant population would limit its own reproduction, or the animals would migrate to another area, allowing regeneration of woodland. In some areas even today, vegetation regeneration seems to keep pace with elephant feeding; it is primarily in savanna habitats, and particularly where elephants have been constrained within the boundaries of reserves, that problems arise, and in the present situation these are certainly important issues for conservation.Many other factors, such as fire and climate change, also contribute to the balance between elephants and their habitats. In the severe drought of 1970-71, thousands of elephants died in Africa as a result of food and water shortage.
African elephants are the heaviest land animal, and the second tallest in the Animal Kingdom. They are a sexually dimorphic species; males appear larger than females. The height of a bull at his shoulder is about twelve feet (about 3.75 m), when the female’s height is nine feet (about 3 m). They have enormous ears, each measuring about four feet (120-125 cm) across. They have a unique nose that is simply a long, boneless trunk extending from the upper lip. The trunk usually measures about five feet long (about 150 cm) and weighs around 300 pounds (about 135 kg). The two finger-like projections on the tip are so dexterous they can pick a blade of grass. The trunk itself is so strong it is capable of lifting 600 pounds (250- 275 kg). Their incisor teeth develop into tusks about 8 feet long (245-250 cm) and can weigh about 130 pounds (60 kg) each. The only other teeth they have are four molars which are replaced three times throughout their lives after the previous set wears down. African elephants have dark gray skin which is scattered with black hairs that wear off through the years. As a result the adults are mostly hairless. Their skin is about 2 1/2 inches (2-4 cm) thick, but flies, mosquitoes and parasites still penetrate it. There are two currently recognized subspecies which differ in their geographic location, tusk length, and weight. Forest elephants, Loxodonta africana cyclotis, typically reside in rain forests. They have more slender tusks and are smaller in height and weight than savannah/desert elephants (Loxodonta africana africana) who usually are found in grasslands.
(Estes, 1999; CITES, 2001; Moss, 1992)
Range mass: 3600 to 6000 kg.
Average mass: 4540.00 kg.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: ornamentation
Catalog Number: USNM A22247
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Mammals
Sex/Stage: Male; Adult
Preparation: Tooth or Tusk
Collector(s): Collector Unknown
Locality: Locality Unknown
- Type: Lydekker, R. 1907 Apr 23. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. 1907 (1): 399.
The habitats occupied by African elephants vary because they can survive long periods of time without water; they occupy deserts, forests, savannas, river valleys and marshes.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune ; savanna or grassland ; forest ; rainforest ; scrub forest
Wetlands: marsh ; swamp
Other Habitat Features: agricultural
Habitat and Ecology
There are two subspecies of the African Elephant. The forest elephant is smaller and lives in rainforests, the savanna elephant in more open habitats. Historically found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, elephants are currently found in increasingly fragmented habitat throughout the same range.
Elephants eat vegetation like leaves, roots, bark, grasses and fruit. Each day they can consume anywhere from 220 to 660 pounds (100 to 300 kg) of food, and drink up to 50 gallons (190 L) of water. During the rainy seasons elephants eat grass and herbs like papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) and cat tails (Typha augustifolia). During dry seasons in the savannah they eat leaves collected from thorny trees and bushes. Swamps are a last resort for food because swamp vegetation contains little nutrition. However, dying elephants are often found in these areas because this vegetation is softer and older elephants are often missing teeth.
Plant Foods: leaves; roots and tubers; wood, bark, or stems; fruit
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore , Frugivore , Lignivore)
Very few species can alter its own environment like elephants do. They demolish bushes, pull up trees by their roots and pack down the soil which can lead to erosion. This destruction also turns wooded areas into grasslands that are needed by grazing animals. Elephants create water holes by digging in dry riverbeds. They coat themselves with mud from the waters edge to protect from the sun and parasites, which creates a larger water hole. They can make and enlarge caves by searching for salts to eat. These caves are used for shelter for many different species. When elephants walk they stir up insects for birds to eat and easily disperse seeds which pass through their system undigested. The African Eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum) only grows after it has been through their system and fertilized by the elephant dung.
Ecosystem Impact: disperses seeds; keystone species
The size of adult elephants leaves them invulnerable to wild animals. Humans are the only predators to adult elephants but calves are susceptible to be snatched away by lions and hyenas. If they sense a predator nearby, the largest cows instinctively herd the calves into a bunch around the matriarch. Next, they form circles around the cluster which creates protective layers that are impossible for predators to penetrate.
- lions (Panthera leo)
- hyenas (Hyaenidae)
- humans (Homo sapiens)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
Elephants consume a huge range of plant types, including grasses, herbs, shrubs, broadleaved trees, palms, and vines. Depending on the plant, they can take every conceivable part, including leaves, shoots, twigs, branches, bark, flowers, fruit, pods, roots, tubers and bulbs. The range of plants taken by an individual elephant can be anything between 100-500 species, although in a given time and place the animals may concentrate on a few species.
Patterns of consumption change with the seasons. In the savanna-woodland habitats of Africa, new-growth grasses are favoured in the rainy season, comprising 50-60% of the diet, but as these become tough in the dry season, the elephants switch to browse, so that the leaves and fruit of trees and shrubs now comprise 70% of the intake. For elephants in the rainforest habitats of Central Africa, the year-round supply of succulent leaves and fruits ensures that grass plays a lesser part in their diet.
Food consumption is 100-300 kg per day. Elephants spend 12-18 hours per day eating, most intensively in the morning and in the late afternoon to evening. In food-rich forest areas, elephants will typically move slowly through the day, browsing on a variety of plants, and eventually covering several kilometres. In many areas, there are daily rhythms: where both woodland and open grassland are available, for example, the elephants may spend the morning and early afternoon browsing in the woodland, emerging in the cool of the late afternoon to graze. Fluid consumption can be 200 litres of water per day in hot weather. When water is scarce, elephants will dig holes in dry stream or lake beds, using their feet, trunk, and tusks, until water seeps in and can be sucked up.
When plants become ready at particular times of year, such as fruits or new shoots, elephants will gravitate towards them, using both smell and a memory from past years. Generally speaking, the poorer the quality, abundance, or predictability of food and water, the greater the distances elephants must travel to find it. Home ranges, measured by radio-collaring individuals, can be as high as 3000 km2 in the Namib desert, where individuals can easily walk 80 km in a day. In many areas, migrations are seasonal. Where water is a key issue, elephants tend to accumulate in the dry season in areas where it can be found, dispersing more widely when this constraint is lifted during the wet season.
Small items can be plucked or picked up with the terminal ‘fingers’ of the trunk; larger items, such as branches, by curling the trunk around them and pulling or twisting. Elephants are highly inventive and can be seen, for example, kicking up sods of dry turf with their feet, picking up the resulting grassy clump with the trunk, banging it against their leg to shake off the earth, and putting it in their mouth. To reach high branches where young, succulent leaves are to be found, or high in acacia trees, where there are fewer thorns, they can rear up on their back legs, giving a total reach of up to 8 m. They will also uproot or push over trees. Finally, the trunk is important in drinking; water is not sucked all the way up into the nose like a drinking straw, but is sucked into the lower part of the trunk, then the trunk is arched and water squirted into the mouth. The only time in its life when an elephant feeds directly with its mouth is when suckling, the mouth being pressed directly against the breast with the trunk curled up out of the way.
The tusks are used to strip bark from trees, which is then eaten; to dig for roots or for water in the dry season; and to scrape or hack salt and other minerals from the soil or exposed rock.
The molar teeth display a series of long, thin, enamel ridges running side-by-side; for this reason, an elephant chews by swinging its lower jaw fore and aft, so that the enamel ridges on the upper and lower teeth cut past each other, shearing the food. The tremendous wear caused by feeding long hours every day on abrasive food causes the teeth to grind down to the root, and elephants not only have high-crowned teeth, but replace their teeth five times through their life, making six sets in all. Each set, however, comprises only four massive molars: lower and upper, left and right. As one tooth wears out it moves forward in the jaw and is gradually replaced by another from behind.
The majority of an elephant’s digestion is accomplished with the aid of cellulose-digesting micro-organisms inhabiting its large intestine, especially a large blind sac opening from it, the caecum. This is a relatively inefficient method of digestion – only 40% or so of food, by weight, is utilised – but it does allow the animal to process large quantities of relatively low-nutrient food. The intestine is up to 35 m long and may weigh up to a tonne when full of food, releasing an average of 100 kg of dung per day.Elephants seem quite resistant to the tannins present in, for example, acacia bark and, by consuming a wide variety of species, they limit the intake of toxic defensive compounds specific to particular plant types. Tree bark is eaten because it provides essential minerals and fatty acids, as well as roughage. Elephants also frequent salt licks, those patches of soil or exposed rock high in minerals such as sodium.
Elephant society has a structure that has been termed matriarchal. The core element is the family unit, a group of 3-25 individuals, comprising related adult females and their young. Females within the family unit are closely bonded for life. By contrast, adult males tent to be solitary, or may form temporary associations of two or three unrelated bulls. They leave the family of their birth at 12-15 years of age and, after that time, although they may frequently associate with female groups for feeding or mating, they have no long term bonds with them, or with each other.Elephants are highly intelligent animals with a complex repertoire of social interactions. Within the family group, individuals of all ages greet, and maintain bonding, by touching their trunk tips to each other’s bodies, rubbing together, and with sound communication and scent. In calves, play is a dominant behaviour. They mock charge, chase each other or wrestle with their trunks. Males, from an early age, engage in mock sparring matches. They are also more independent of their mothers than females, a trend that increases as they get older.
Within the female groups, a few older individuals, and in particular the lead individual, termed the matriarch, are instrumental in deciding the group’s pattern of movement, in defending the group against danger, and in monitoring and responding to other approaching elephants. Calves, especially when very young, stay close to their mother, but all females in the group will aid with in their upbringing. At the approach of a predator, adult females wheel round to face the source of danger, protecting the calves that stay close behind. The members of the family unit may separate for short intervals during the day, but will soon regroup. Family units also form looser associations or “bond groups”, with more distantly related families. Occasionally, very large herds if 500 or even 1,000 elephants can be seen, primarily during migration. Even then, within the mass of animals, individual family groups maintain their integrity.
There is a dominance hierarchy among bulls, generally related to their age, size, and power. If two bulls of roughly equal size meet, they assess each other through intertwining trunks, pushing and pulling, or lightly engaging their tusks. Rarely, sparring may lead to a full-scale fight, sometimes (but not always) for access to an oestrus female. The combatants will charge each other with ears outstretched, or cross tusks and attempt to twist each other off-balance, all accompanied by loud vocalisations. Each tries ultimately to gore the other with his tusks, sometimes resulting in fatal wounds by deep penetration of the head or chest. Broken tusks may result from twisting with the full body weight. The fight will end either by withdrawal of the weaker animal, or with death.Male elephants enter a periodic state called ‘musth’. The temporal gland, located on the side of the head between the ear and the eye, produces a dark fluid (temporin) with a strong musky odour. Musth males also intermittently dribble urine. A male elephant generally enters musth once a year, for a period of anything up to a month, the time of year varying with the animal. Musth bulls have heightened levels of testosterone and are very aggressive, especially toward other bulls. Musth is associated with heightened sexual activity, although non-musth bulls also mate. Females also have a temporal gland, which can occasionally be seen to ooze secretion, and elephants have been observed rubbing their cheeks against trees, so temporin may have broader communication functions. Recent research has indicated that subordinate bulls produce a different chemical signal, with a sweet aroma, which may be used to signal submissiveness to the dominant bulls and so avoid attack.
Elephants have relatively poor vision, but highly developed senses of taste and smell. They obtain chemical cues by using their trunks to touch each other’s genitals, mouths, temporal glands, and urine. They also often lift their trunks and rotate the open tips, testing the air for the scent of other animals in the vicinity. It is very likely that they can identify different individual elephants from these cues.Elephants also have acute hearing and communicate through a wide variety of vocalisations. At least 25 different calls, audible to the human ear, have been identified in African elephants, 15 of them in a low-frequency group termed rumbles. Some of them are known to be associated with different events such as musth in a bull and oestrus or copulation in a female. In addition, a range of infrasound vocalisations extends down to 5 Hz, well below the frequency of human hearing. Low-frequency sound is less subject to environmental attenuation, and elephant rumbles and infrasound are audible to other elephants over a range of up to 5 km. It has also been suggested that elephants may communicate over even longer distances as they stamp their feet on the ground, but this theory remains to be tested.
An elephant can live to around 60 years; many die before this age, from disease, injury, starvation, drought, or predation (though the latter is rare for healthy adult animals). A remarkable aspect of elephant behaviour is their response to injured, sick and dead members of their species. Many accounts have been recorded: adult females circling around a wounded animal to prevent further attack; lifting a wounded animal to its feet and shouldering it to safety; jumping into water where a wounded animal has fallen, and heaving it out again; pulling and pushing a calf out of mud where it had become stuck; standing guard over a stricken but living animal lying on the ground; covering the body of a relative with grass and leaves as soon as it had died; returning to the carcass or even skeleton of a dead relative; and tasting, picking up, and moving the remains with their trunks.
The idea of an elephant graveyard, a place where elephants go to die, is a myth. Sick and dying elephants often go to a lakeside or river, where there is a ready supply of food and water within easy reach, and several might die in one area for that reason. In times of drought, animals congregate around water holes and many may die there.Elephants are not territorial. Although individuals or family units have home ranges, those of different animals overlap and are not defended as such. There are daily and seasonal activity patterns within the home range. They sleep lying down, usually for two to four hours in the early morning. They may also, in the hottest part of the day, stand motionless in the shade, but even when the eyes are closed, they are most likely dozing rather than sleeping.Seasonal movements, particularly in open country, may see large aggregations of hundreds of animals. In other situations, particularly in forest environments, matriarchs lead their families along the same paths that have been used for generations; these elephant trails, trampled, barren ground 1-2 m wide, can extend for tens of kilometers.Elephants walk or amble, but cannot canter or gallop. A charging animal can attain 5m per second (20 kph), while walking speed ranges from 0.5 – 2.5 m per second (2 – 10 kph). Elephants walk cautiously, appearing to place each foot with care to avoid ground that is too soft or cobbled, for example. Even so, they can manoeuvre very dense terrain and can climb up and down remarkably steep, slippery slopes. They are also adept swimmers, paddling with all four feet and using the trunk as a snorkel.
Elephants eat vegetation like leaves, roots, bark, grasses and fruit. Each day they can consume anywherefrom 100 to 300 kilograms (220 to 660 lbs) of food, and up to 190 liters (50 gallons) of water.
African Elephants live in herds of up to 200 adult females and their young. Herds are generally led by the oldest female or matriarch. She determines when the group will eat, rest, bathe or drink. Once they reach sexual maturity, males leave their group to live on their own or in smaller bachelor herds.
Elephants have one of the longest lifespans of all mammals- about seventy years. Their age can be determined by height comparison to the matriarch, tusk length, or more complicated methods like measuring the weight of an eye lens from an elephant that recently died. Aging elephants faces appear sunken and their ears fold toward their body as they get older. They may also suffer from arthritis, tuberculosis or blood diseases like septicemea. Accidental death can occur if an elephant falls down a hill, or if it loses a fight with another elephant. Deaths from poaching still outnumber any natural or accidental occurrences of death in elephants.
(Estes, 1999; Payne, Langbauer, Jr., 1992; Moss, 1992)
Status: wild: 70 years.
Status: wild: 60.0 years.
Status: captivity: 80.0 years.
Status: wild: 70.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
A females' estrus period lasts for about forty-eight hours. A bull in musth, a heightened state of sexual aggression and activity, must determine if the cow is in estrus by smelling her genitals. He inhales with the end of his trunk rubbing her genitals, then exhales with the end of the trunk in his mouth. This sends chemicals to his Jacobson’s organ, located in the palate, to test her condition for mating. Larger males with the largest tusks are usually around fifty years old and do most of the breeding; leaving the younger bulls to roam until a mate is found. Males constantly search for mates and rarely stay for more than a few weeks with a female and her herd.
Mating System: polygynous
Elephants do not have any specific mating season. During the rainy seasons the reproductive rate is higher while times of drought or crowded conditions result in a lower reproductive rate. After a 22-month gestation period, single elephant calves are born weighing about 265 pounds (120-130 kg), twins are rare. A short time after birth, they instinctively are able to follow their mothers. Females give birth every four to nine years. Older calves are weaned a few months before the next is born.
Sexual maturity is reached between 10 and 12 years of age. African elephant live about 70 years, they continue to grow in height during their lives, reaching a maximum of 13 ft (4-4.5 m) for males, and 9 ft (approx. 2.5-3 m) for females. (Estes, 1999; Eltringam, 1992)
Breeding interval: Females give birth every four to nine years.
Breeding season: Births occur more frequently during rainy seasons, but may occur throughout the year.
Range number of offspring: 2 (high) .
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average gestation period: 22 months.
Average weaning age: 48-108 months.
Average time to independence: 48-108 minutes.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 10-12 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 10-12 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 105000 g.
Average gestation period: 670 days.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 3650 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 4018 days.
The calf is born into a nurturing herd of related females and young males. After a gestation period of 20-22 months, they are precocial as they can see, smell, and walk a short time after birth. These well-developed calves are guarded and taken care of by their allomothers; young females who assist the calf’s mother. Elephant cows of the herd, which are typically related, frequently suckle each others' calves. Daughters remain in their natal herd for life, sons leave their natal herd once they reach sexual maturity.
Parental Investment: precocial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); post-independence association with parents; extended period of juvenile learning
- Eltringam, S., K. Payne, W. Langbauer, Jr., C. Moss, J. Shoshani. August, 1992. Elephants, Majestic creat. Pennsylvania: Rodale Press.
- Estes, R. 1999. "Elephants, reprinted from "The Safari Companion"" (On-line). Accessed October 5, 2001 at http://nature-wildlife.com/eletxt.htm.
- Moss, C. 1988. Elephant Memories. New York: William and Morrow Co.
Evolution and Systematics
The skin of elephants allows them to fine-tune thermal regulation via 'hot spots', patches of skin that are highly vascularized.
"In this study, we examined infrared thermograms in the course of time of six African zoo elephants and observed two phenomena. First, we noticed independent thermal windows, highly vascularised skin areas, on the whole elephants' body and second we observed distinct and sharply delimited hot sections on the elephants' pinnae. The frequency of thermal windows increased with increasing ambient temperature and body weight. We assume that the restriction of an enhanced cutaneous blood flow to thermal windows might enable the animal to react more flexibly to its needs with regard to heat loss. With this understanding, the use of thermal windows in heat loss might be seen as a fine-tuning mechanism under thermoneutral conditions." (Weissenböck et al. 2010:182)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Gray R. 2010. Elephants use 'hot spots' to stay cool. Telegraph.co.uk [Internet],
- Weissenböck NM; Weiss CM; Schwammer HM; Kratochvil H. 2010. Thermal windows on the body surface of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) studied by infrared thermography. Journal of Thermal Biology. 35(4): 182-188.
Physiology and Cell Biology
African elephants weigh 200–265 lb (90–120 kg) at birth. Unlike other mammals, they continue to grow well into adult life. Females cease growth at 25–30 years, males at 35–45. Fully-grown savannah elephants, L. a. africana, weigh 4–7 tonnes and measure 2.5–4m high at the shoulder. The have a concave, ‘saddle-shaped’ back. Forest elephants, L. a. cyclotis, weigh 2–4 tonnes, for a shoulder height of 1.8–3 m, and have a straighter back. In comparison with the Asian species (Elephas maximus) the head is less high and is single-domed; the ears are larger, and fold back at the top; and there are two ‘fingers’ at the end of the trunk. Both sexes possess tusks, those of the female being relatively smaller, whereas in the Asian species the females generally lack tusks.
The elephant’s head is proportionately very large, weighing up to half a tonne; the neck is short. The body is supported on four extremely strong pillar-like legs. The elephant has five splayed toes buried within its foot, and stands on tip-toe; the first visible joint, some distance above the ground, is not the elbow or the knee, but the wrist or ankle. The foot contains a pad of springy tissue that causes the elephant’s foot to swell sideways when it bears the animal’s weight. The tail is long, extending to below the knee, and ends in a tuft of very coarse hairs. Otherwise, the body is sparsely covered by short hair, more pronounced in very young animals. As far as is known, there are no sweat glands. The ears are very large and thin, except for a thicker supporting ridge along the top. They are richly supplied with blood vessels for heat loss, and are flapped mainly for this purpose. The skin is a uniform gray. Elephants may take on brown or other hues after wallowing in mud.
The elephant’s trunk is, anatomically, a fusion between its nose and upper lip. The trunk is remarkably sensitive, flexible, and manoeuvrable, as well as being immensely strong. It contains no bone or cartilage, but is principally composed of muscle, in eight main sets (four on each side) comprising a total of about 150,000 separately moveable muscle units. Two nostrils run the entire length of the trunk for breathing.
The tusks are, anatomically, greatly expanded lateral incisor teeth. They are comprised almost entirely of dentine. About a third of their length is buried within a socket in the animal’s skull. The tusks are solid, except the upper part within the socket, where there is a pulp cavity. The tusks grow by addition of dentine there, pushing them out by up to 6in (15cm) a year. The tusks of a large bull can extend 79 in (200cm) in total length and weigh 110lb (50kg) each, although such figures are rare nowadays.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Loxodonta africana
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
-- end --
Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Loxodonta africana
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 4
Species With Barcodes: 1
The African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988 is in full effect today, which bans any trade in ivory. The species’ status on the CITES appendix has moved to #1, from a monitored amount of trade to none. Though some conservation programs offer rewards, people have made movements to conserve and live with the elephants without being repaid. Conservation facilities exist in Africa, and societies to fuel them exist worldwide in Cameroon, England, Germany, Kenya, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Sweden, Tanzania, Thailand and the United States. In central eastern Africa, a number of wildlife conservancies hope to give endangered species a large protected area to live in and reproduce. They hope to see more action taken on predators and stop the illegal trade in ivory. Some parks and other areas that are being populated more and more with humans must control the number of elephants by controlled killing, or culling.
US Federal List: threatened
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
The species is the largest terrestrial animal and has been the subject of considerable research, but continent-wide distribution and density estimates are difficult to obtain for any one time period. To a large extent this is due to the enormous range covered by the species (and thus the cost of estimating its numbers) as well as to the wide variety of habitats it occupies (often woodland and forest where visibility is poor from the ground as well as from the air; see Habitats list). These difficulties, coupled with the differential influence that various historical factors have played in different parts of the continent, result in a continental picture of the status of the African Elephant that varies considerably – qualitatively and quantitatively – across its range.
Although our knowledge of the status of African Elephants across their range has been progressively improving since the mid-1990s, when considerable resources began to be channelled into compiling and producing regular updates of the continental status of elephants with a standardized measure of certainty (Said et al. 1995; Barnes et al. 1999; Blanc et al. 2003; Blanc et al. 2007), large gaps still remain.
In investigating the Red List Criteria (Version 3.1) against these realities, it became clear to the group of assessors involved in the 2004 assessment, that the variability in population trends and levels of uncertainty would preclude a full quantitative Red List assessment, such as would be conducted under criterion E. It was therefore agreed that a compromise approximation would have to be made, and that the African Elephant Specialist Group would be best placed to undertake this task. In order to facilitate the process, extensive use was made of the Guidelines for Application of IUCN Red List Criteria at Regional Levels (IUCN 2003).
The criterion used for the categorization was criterion A. Criteria B, C and D are not applicable as the species currently occupies more that 20,000 km² and there are more than 10,000 mature individuals. No quantitative analysis was conducted and therefore criterion E does not apply. Substantial resources would be required to undertake a consensus-driven modelling approach, which would inevitably be based on a great deal of uncertainty with regard to some of the key parameters, including estimates of both human and elephant population size, as well as the scale and extent of threats to the species and its habitats. While ivory export records and other indirect data could be used to derive these models, they would still encounter the many uncertainties inherent in the reconstruction of events covering the better part of a century.
Subcriterion A2a was used because some of the major causes for decline, such as habitat loss due to human population expansion, have not ceased and may not be reversible throughout the species' range. While the recent data used in the assessment are based on direct observation, the population size reduction over three generations is only inferred (see below).
A generation time of 25 years, calculated as the average age of reproductive females, was established using data from many culling exercises in Kruger National Park, South Africa (I. Whyte pers. comm.).
There are no credible estimates for a continental population prior to the late 1970s. Thus for the continental (global) population, an extrapolation back to the beginning of three generations is plagued with high levels of uncertainty. Clearly, forward extrapolation to the mid-21st Century would also be troubled by uncertainty, not only for the reasons cited above, but also because of the variety of causes for decline and the nature of the current and likely future threats - mainly habitat loss and illegal hunting for both meat and ivory - which are in themselves variable in intensity across the continent.
One of the key components of the methodology adopted at the AfESG’s 2003 Etosha meeting was the assumption that continental elephant populations increased during the first half of the 20th century (as a result of the decline of the ivory trade from the outbreak of WWI, improved protection measures, and an increase in preferred secondary forest habitat in Central Africa), reaching a peak in the late 1960s and declining from then until the late 20th century.
In addition, African Elephant population trends in the course of the 20th century are believed to have differed considerably across the different African sub-regions (see Figure 1 in the attached PDF). In Eastern Africa, for instance, there is a general consensus that there was a peak (regional population maximum) around the late 1960s and early 1970s, followed by a decline in the 1980s and subsequent recovery in recent years (Blanc et al. 2005, 2007). In Southern Africa, which now harbours the largest known populations on the continent, elephant numbers are believed to have been at their lowest around the turn of the 20th century, and to have been increasing steadily ever since. The magnitude of the decline in Eastern Africa has in all likelihood been offset by the magnitude of the increase in Southern Africa. In West Africa, major declines probably occurred well before the turn of the 20th century and the population has remained at low levels ever since. There is insufficient information on sub-regional trends in Central Africa prior to 1977, but elephant populations are believed to have declined since that time. This is important as Central Africa accounts for a large proportion of the estimated continental range, but our knowledge of its current population size is the poorest.
Taking these problems into account, the consensus among contributors to the 2004 assessment was that it would be an appropriate and acceptable compromise, more likely to err on the conservative side relative to the final listing, to assume the continental population of three generations back (1927) to be equal to that of the first continental estimate in 1977. As the data used for the 2004 assessment were from 2002 (see section on 'Further Details on Data Used' in the attached PDF), it was thus assumed that the population in 1927 was approximately equal to the population estimate for 1977 derived by the contributors to the 2004 assessment.
For the present assessment, which uses 2006 data for the current generation, a comparison had to be made between 2006 and 1931. No consensus population estimate for 1931 is available for this assessment. Had the population remained constant or declined between 1927 and 1931, a comparison with the 2006 data used in this assessment would have resulted in a downlisting of the species to Near Threatened (NT). As mentioned above, however, according to the methodology and assumptions adopted at the 2003 AfESG meeting in Etosha, elephant populations were assumed to be increasing through the first part of the 20th Century. The extent to which the continental population would have increased is unknown. However, calculations reveal that, given the assumptions above, an annual rate of increase of greater than 1.53% would result in the species remaining in the Vulnerable category, and a rate of 1.53% or less would result in the species being re-categorized as Near Threatened. Under the conditions likely prevailing at the time the African Elephant Red List Authority believes that the likely annual rate of increase could easily have exceeded 1.53%. The conservative decision, again relative to the final global listing, is thus to accept a growth rate of greater than 1.53% per annum and to retain the African Elephant in the Vulnerable category in this assessment.
Changes to Status
The African Elephant was listed as Vulnerable (VU A2a) in the 2004 IUCN Red List, under the same IUCN Categories and Criteria used in this assessment (Version 3.1).
Prior to the 2004 assessment, the species was listed as Endangered (EN A1b) under the IUCN Categories and Criteria Version 2.3 (1994), in an assessment conducted in 1996 by the IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group.
The status of African Elephants varies considerably across the species' range. These differences broadly follow regional boundaries, and are partly a result of the different historical trends. To better reflect this variation in status, it was decided to include in this assessment regional-level listings for the four African regions in which elephants occur (see Figure 2 in the attached PDF). The methodology and criteria used in these regional assessments is identical to that used for the global assessment, but employing only the relevant subsets of data. An exception to this rule is West Africa, where a more precautionary listing was obtained through the application of a different Red List Criterion. The results of the regional assessments are presented in Table 1 of the attached PDF.
- 1994Vulnerable(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Vulnerable(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1988Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
Date Listed: 06/11/1978
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: T
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Loxodonta africana , see its USFWS Species Profile
IUCN Red List Status: VULNERABLE
- The destruction of their habitat
Habitat destruction has both reduced the total range of elephants, and has greatly fragmented it. The principal cause is human settlement and agriculture due to population growth, but activities such as logging for financial gain also contribute.Over much of the range, the remaining areas of habitat correspond to national parks, nature reserves and the like. Many of these fragments retain less than 100 individuals, and prospects for their long-term survival are not good. If there is no exchange of individuals with other populations, inbreeding reduces the genetic health of the population. If climatic fluctuations produce a series of stressful years, the population will suffer increased mortality and reduced birth rate, and may not recover.In West Africa through the 1980s, elephant populations in habitat fragments of less than 250 km2 had only a 20% chance of surviving the decade, while those in areas of more than 750 km2 had almost a 100% chance of survival.
The hunting of elephants for meat has been practised since prehistoric times, but only with the use of firearms has the thirst for ivory posed a threat to the very survival of the species. By 1800, the elephant populations of southern and West Africa had already been seriously depleted. A century later, the trade from Africa had increased to 1000 tonnes per year. The 1970s and 1980s proved critical: the total African population fell from an estimated 1.3 million animals in 1979, to just over 400,000 in 1987.Combating the ivory trade is a complex issue that requires the enforcement not only of bans against hunting, but international action to trace the organizers of poaching, the middle men, and the ultimate consumers.
From its foundation in the 1970s, CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) placed African elephants on its Appendix II (allowing limited trading). In 1989, however, they were raised to Appendix I, effectively banning all trade in elephant ivory. The policy worked: ivory prices fell, and many countries reported a drastic reduction in poaching. However, in 1997, some southern African countries with healthy elephant populations won from CITES permission to sell their ivory stocks. The market was stimulated, and in subsequent years, increased poaching has been reported by a number of African countries. Nevertheless, in 2002, and again in 2007, CITES allowed further sales of stockpiled ivory by these countries, despite almost universal opposition from conservation organisations, who argue that such sales only serve to stimulate the ivory trade and illegal killing of elephants.A recent report (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/17/illegal-ivory-trade-poachers-africa) indicates that there is a massive current surge in ivory trading: more than 14,000 products made from the tusks and other body parts of elephants were seized in 2009. It is estimated that between 8% and 10% of Africa’s elephants are now being killed each year to meet the demand, mostly from the Far East. With the current world population of African elephant at around 300,000-400,000, this represents an annual take of up to 40,000 animals and is clearly not sustainable.The management and protection of elephant habitats is also a major goal. International support enabling poor countries to maintain existing wildlife reserves, or to create new ones, is crucial. Properly managed eco-tourism can be beneficial, as it provides an income underscoring the value of the reserve. Yet small reserves, even when protected, may not support enough animals to give a viable population. Raman Sukumar has suggested that 50 breeding individuals, translating into 125-150 animals, is a minimum goal, with 10 times that number an ideal. One solution to this problem is to create corridors of habitat, allowing animals to migrate between parks, so that populations are effectively merged into one, viable unit.
Elephant-human conflict is a serious issue in some areas. Elephants enter agricultural areas and can destroy the entire crop of a smallholding in a single night. Traditional countermeasures include lighting flares, throwing rocks, employing domestic elephants to chase away the marauders, or digging trenches around fields. The latter are of some use but elephants learn how to fill them with earth or logs. Electric fences are employed by rich landowners, but are too expensive to bound large national parks or small private holdings. Other measures include not planting crops favoured by elephants in the area around their habitat, and relocating farms and villages (with compensation paid to the farmers). The latter may also be necessary when extending reserves or creating habitat corridors.In some African countries, elephant populations in wildlife parks have been held in check by government-approved culling. The stated rationale is to prevent the populations increasing to the point where they turn woodland into grassland, reducing biodiversity, and leading to elephant mortality when drought hits, as happened in Tsavo National park, Kenya, in the 1960s and 1970s. Opponents counter that culling (sometimes of entire family groups) is inhumane and causes stress to surviving animals; is a temptation for illicit ivory dealing; interferes with natural cycles; and depresses tourism. Possible alternatives include relocating animals to areas of low density and subcutaneous implants of birth-control hormones.While elephants in Asia (Elephas maximus) have been domesticated for thousands of years, the African elephant has been domesticated only rarely. This difference appears to be for human cultural reasons rather than any innate inability of the species to be domesticated. The Carthaginians fought the Romans with them, and Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps was probably with the help of the African species. In modern times, Belgian colonisers domesticated elephants for traction and other uses in Central Africa.
The African Elephant is subject to various degrees of legal protection in all Range States. Although up to 70% of the species range is believed to lie in unprotected land, most large populations occur within protected areas.
Conservation measures usually include habitat management and protection through law enforcement. Successful management at the site level can result in the build-up of high elephant densities. This is often perceived as a threat to their local habitats, as well as to other species and to elephant populations themselves. Management interventions to reduce elephant numbers and local densities have been limited and most recently been undertaken through contraception or translocation. Large-scale culling has not been performed as a population management option since Zimbabwe discontinued the practice in 1988 and South Africa did likewise in 1994.
The sport hunting of elephants is permitted under the legislation of a number of Range States, and the following countries currently (2007) have CITES export quotas for elephant trophies: Botswana, Cameroon, Gabon, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Some community-based conservation programmes in which revenue from the sport hunting of elephants reverts directly to local communities have proved effective in increasing tolerance to elephants, and thus indirectly in reducing levels of human-elephant conflict.
An increasing number of transboundary elephant populations are co-managed through the collaboration of relevant neighbouring Range States. Large-scale conservation interventions are also planned through the development of conservation and management strategies at the national and regional level.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Elephant foraging and wandering sometimes result in crop damage and damage to villages.
Negative Impacts: crop pest
- Jackson, P. 1990. Endangered Species, Elephants. Secaucus, New Jersey: Chartwell Books.
Humans have previously profited from ivory as it was used for jewelry, sculptures, pianos, and tools. Their hides were sometimes used for clothes and blankets and the local people ate their meat. Ecotourism activities revolving around seeing African elephants in the wild now provide significant sources of revenue for some regional economies in Africa.
Positive Impacts: body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism
African Bush Elephant
|It has been suggested that this article or section be merged into African Savanna Elephant . (Discuss)|
- See also: African Savanna Elephant
The African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the larger of the two species of African elephant. Both it and the African Forest Elephant have usually been classified as a single species, known simply as the African Elephant. Some authorities still consider the currently available evidence insufficient for splitting the African Elephant into two species. It is also known as the Bush Elephant.
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The African Elephant is the largest living terrestrial animal, normally reaching 6 to 7.3 metres (19.7 to 24.0 ft) in length and 3.5 to 4 metres (11.5 to 13.1 ft) in height at the head, and weighing between 6,000 to 9,000 kg (13,000 to 20,000 lb).
The largest on record, shot in Angola in 1965, was a bull weighing 12,274 kg (27,060 lb) and standing 4.2 metres (13.8 ft) high, the body of which is now mounted in the rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.. (The museum's website states that the specimen weighs only 8 tons.) The Bush Elephant normally moves at a rate of 6 km/h (4 mph), but it can reach a top speed of 40 km/h (25 mph) when scared or upset.
The animal is characterized by its large head; two large ears that cover its shoulders and radiate excess heat; a large and muscular trunk; two prominent tusks, which are well-developed in both sexes, although more commonly in males; a short neck; a large, barrel-like body; four long and heavy legs; and a relatively short tail.
The animal is protected by a heavy but flexible layer of gray-brown skin, dotted with mostly undeveloped patches of hair and long, black hair at the tip of its tail. Its back feet have three toes that form a hoof, while the number of toes on the front feet have varied between four and five. The forehead is smoother and less convex than that of the Asian Elephant.
The trunk is the most characteristic feature of the African Bush Elephant. It is formed by the fusion and elongation of the nose and upper lip, forming a flexible and strong organ made purely of muscle.
Little scientific research has been carried out into elephants' cognitive or perceptual abilities. An exception is a recent report that African Bush Elephants are able to use seismic vibrations at infrasound frequencies for communication.
African Bush Elephants are herbivorous. Their diet varies according to their habitat; elephants living in forests, partial deserts, and grasslands all eat different proportions of herbs and tree or shrubbery leaves. Elephants inhabiting the shores of Lake Kariba have been recorded eating underwater plant life. In order to break down the plants they consume, the African Bush Elephant has four large molars, two in each mandible of the jaw. Each of these molars is 10 cm wide and 30 cm long. Over time, these molars are worn away and new ones are grown to replace them as the elephant ages. Around the age of 15 their milk teeth are replaced by new ones that last until the age of 30, and then by another set which wear off past the age of 40, being replaced by the last set of teeth that last approximately until the age of 65–70. Not much later, the animal dies of starvation from not being able to feed correctly. There are known cases of over 80 year old specimens in captivity.
These animals typically ingest an average of 225 kg of vegetable matter daily, which is defecated without being fully digested. That, combined with the long distances that they can cover daily in search of more food, contributes notably to the dispersion of many plant seeds that germinate in the middle of a nutrient-filled feces mound. Elephants rip apart all kind of plants, and knock down trees with the tusks if they are not able to reach the tree leaves. In some national parks there is overpopulation, so that managers of overpopulated parks often contact other parks with fewer specimens to transfer excess individuals.
Elephants also drink great quantities of water, over 190 liters per day.
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The African Bush Elephant is an intelligent animal. Experiments with reasoning and learning show that they are the smartest ungulates together with their Asian cousins. This is mostly due to their large brain.
Herds are made up of related females and their young, directed by the eldest female, called the matriarch. Infrequently, an adult male goes with them, but those usually leave the pack when reaching adolescence to form bachelor herds with other elephants of the same age. Later they lead a solitary life, approaching the female herds only during the mating season. Nevertheless, elephants do not get too far from their families and recognize them when re-encountered. Sometimes, several female herds can blend for a period of time, reaching even hundreds of individuals.
The matriarch is the one who decides the route and shows to each other member of the herd all the water sources she knows, which the rest will memorize in the future. The relations among the members of the herd is very tight; when a female gives birth to a baby the rest go to acknowledge it touching her with the trunk; and when an old elephant dies the rest of the herd will stay by the corpse for a while. The famous elephant graveyards are a myth, but it is true that these animals can recognize a carcass of its species when they find one during their trips, and even if it is a stranger, they form around it and sometimes they even touch its forehead with their trunk.
Mating happens when the female becomes receptive, an event that can occur anytime during the year. When she is ready, she starts emitting infrasounds that attract the males, sometimes from kilometers away. The adult males start arriving at the herd during the following days and begin fighting, causing some injuries and even broken tusks. The female shows her acceptance of the victor by rubbing her body against his. They mate, and then both go their own way. After 22 months of gestation (the longest among mammals), the female gives birth to a single 90 cm high calf which weighs more than 100 kg. The baby feeds on the mothers milk until the age of 5, but also eats solid food from as early as 6 months old. Just a few days after birth, the calf can follow the herd by foot.
The adult African Bush Elephant generally has no natural predators due to its great size, but the calves (especially the newborn) are vulnerable to lion and crocodile attacks, and (rarely) to leopard and hyena attacks. Predation, as well as drought, contribute significantly to infant mortality.
Humans are the elephant's major predator. Elephants have been hunted for meat, skin, bones, and tusks. Elephant trophy hunting increased in the 19th and 20th centuries, when tourism and plantations increasingly attracted sport hunters. In 1989, hunting of the African Bush Elephant for ivory trading was forbidden, after the elephant population fell from several million at the beginning of the 20th century to fewer than 700,000. Trophy hunting continues today. The population of African Bush Elephants was halved during the 1980s. Scientists then estimated that, if no protective measures were taken, the wild elephant would be extinct by 1995. The protection that the elephant now receives has been partially successful, but despite increasingly severe penalties imposed by governments against illegal hunting, poaching is still common. CITES still considers this species as threatened with extinction.
A 2010 genetic study confirmed that the African Bush Elephant and the African Forest Elephant are distinct species. By sequencing DNA of 375 nuclear genes, scientists determined that the two species diverged around the same time as the Asian elephant and the woolly mammoth and are as distinct from one another as those two species. As of December 2010[update], conservation organizations such as the United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had not distinguished between the two species of African elephants for purposes of assessing their conservation status. As of March 2010[update], the IUCN Red List classified African elephants as a whole as vulnerable species and the Central African elephant population (forest elephants) as Endangered.
Another possible species or subspecies formerly existed, but although formally described  it has not been widely recognized by the scientific community. The North African Elephant (Loxodonta africana pharaohensis), also known as the Carthaginian Elephant or Atlas Elephant, was the animal famously used as a war elephant by Carthage in its long struggle against Rome.
In 2006, an elephant slaughter was documented in southeastern Chad by aerial surveys. A series of poaching incidents, resulting in the killing of over 100 elephants, was carried out during the late spring and summer of 2006 in the vicinity of Zakouma National Park. This region has a decades-old history of poaching of elephants, which has caused the elephant population of the region, which exceeded 300,000 in 1970, to drop to approximately 10,000 today. The African Bush Elephant officially is protected by Chadian government, but the resources and manpower provided by the government (with some European Union assistance) have proven insufficient to stop the poaching.
Human encroachment into or adjacent to natural areas where Bush Elephants occur has led to recent research into methods of safely driving groups of elephants away from humans, including the discovery that playback of the recorded sounds of angry honey bees are remarkably effective at prompting elephants to flee an area.
Herd of elephants in Serengeti NP, Tanzania.
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- ^ IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG): Statement on the Taxonomy of extant Loxodonta (February, 2006)
- ^ National Museum of Natural History: Exhibits
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- ^ Steenhuysen, Julie (December 22, 2010), "Africa has two species of elephants, not one", Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6BK6I920101222
- ^ Nowak, Ronald M. (1999), Walker's Mammals of the World, 6th edition, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp 1002.
- ^ Yalden, D.W., M.J. Largen and D. Kock (1986), Catalogue of the Mammals of Ethiopia.6. Perissodactyla, Proboscidea, Hyracoidea, Lagomorpha, Tubulidentata, Sirenia, and Cetacea, Italian J. Zool., Suppl., n.s., 21:31-103.
- ^ Handwerk, Brian (2006-08-30). "African Elephants Slaughtered in Herds Near Chad Wildlife Park". NationalGeographic.com. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/08/060830-elephants-chad.html. Retrieved 2006-09-01.
- ^ Goudarzi, Sara (2006-08-30). "100 Slaughtered Elephants Found in Africa". LiveScience.com. http://www.livescience.com/animalworld/060830_chad_elephants.html. Retrieved 2006-08-31.
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