The African elephant is the largest land animal, with big bulls reaching heights of 4 meters (13 feet) and weights up to 10 metric tonnes (22,000 lb), though 5-6 tonnes (11,000 – 13,200 lb) is more common. Females are much smaller at around 2.5 meters (8-9 feet) at the shoulder and a weight between 2-3 tonnes (4400 – 6600 lb). Due to genetic studies it is now split into two separate species. The savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest and also the most common one, while the forest elephant (L. cyclotis) is noticeably smaller, with straighter tusks and rounder ears. Forest elephants are mainly found in Central Africa and the West African rain forest regions, while the savannah species is found in East, West and Southern Africa, though some postulate the West African specimens might be a third species.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals living in social family groups led by a female leader, the matriarch. Females stay in their native herd their entire lives, making everyone in the herd closely related. A herd can split into smaller herds, and then rejoin again at later stages. It is not uncommon when resources are abundant to find small groups with one mother, one or several older daughters, and a few calves temporarily split from the bigger herd. In the dry season, family groups often join together for protection, and in some instances they can reach up to several hundred individuals. A female can start reproducing offspring at age 10-12 and will be in estrus for only 2-7 days at a time. Once impregnated, the gestation period is 22 months.
Here’s a video of an elephant herd with a very young calf. Notice how the females always try to keep the calf protected and hidden away. The matriarch in this herd has no tusks, a trait thought to be more common in areas with a history of poaching. Take notice when the big bull comes in (the one with the branch stuck on his back) how much larger he is than the females.
The elephant bulls live with the herd until they reach an age of around 14 years before they split from the herd to venture on their own. Bulls live most of their adult life alone, but they often form bachelor groups that will stick together for longer periods. It is common for a young bull to find a bachelor group with older bulls where the older bulls will teach the younger elephant the ways of living as an adult elephant.
Bull elephants will throughout their adult lives go through periods of hormonal change, called musth, where their testosterone levels increase to 60 times the normal levels. During musth an elephant becomes highly aggressive and dangerous. It is thought to be linked with dominance and sexual arousal, though research have been inconclusive as to what is the main cause. The presence of bigger and older bulls will normally keep younger and less dominant individuals from entering musth prematurely. All bull elephants will go into musth periodically during their prime adult years of 25-45 when they reach a size where they can fight other bulls for mating rights and dominance. Musth can last from one day to four months.
It is possible to identify a bull in musth by looking at the temporal ducts situated behind the eyes on both sides of the head. During musth, an elephant will secrete large quantities of a substance called temporin, and can be seen as a wide, wet flow running down from the ducts. In addition, the elephant will have urine constantly dripping from his penis that may or may not be out of its pouch. An elephant in musth will also walk with the head held high and swinging, and he will sometimes dig his tusks into the ground. Always look for these signs when coming across bull elephants as it may save lives, or at least your vehicle.
When big bulls fight for dominance it can be brutal, and can sometimes end with death of the less dominant individual. All bulls will throughout their lives test their strength by fighting other bulls, including companions within the bachelor herds. Even when not in musth they will always try to assert dominance. In the video below there’s an excellent example of two bulls testing their strength and dominance. Notice how the two very young bulls beside them are caught up and mimic them. It is also important to note how the fight suddenly comes to a halt when the dominant bull enters the scene towards the end.
Elephants live to become 45-60 years of age. How old they become is dependant on their teeth. An elephant has four molars, and as the front ones are worn down by use, the back ones are pushed forward. Elephants will have their teeth replaced 4-6 times during their lifetime. As they get older and their last set of teeth are getting worn down, they will forage on vegetation that is easier to chew. Because of this, elephants often go to the same foraging spots before they die. This has created the rumor of elephant graveyards.
Elephant intelligence is thought to be on the same level as whales and dolphins, as well as primates. They are able to show a wide range of emotions, such as grief, joy and compassion. They are self-aware and their ability to learn, use tools and solve problems are astounding. They might even have their own language, as they can communicate over long distances using low-frequency vibrations in the ground.
At the moment the number of African Elephants are thought to be 500,000 and it is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. It is a number that has been fluctuating a lot over the last couple of centuries with periods of intense poaching for ivory and meat. Habitat loss and poaching has been major problems for the West African elephant and the forest elephant. There are approximately 50,000 forest elephants left in the wild, and even less of the West African elephants.
In 2013, an estimate of 23,000 African elephants were killed in poaching incidents, and another 20,000 in 2014. Poaching for ivory has reached a new high and 20 % of the population has been lost over the last decade as the demand for ivory products in China continues to rise. It is believed that the number of elephants killed now exceeds that of offspring born. The current surge of poaching is mainly focused in East Africa, where park and government officials often seem to be directly involved in the ivory trade.
In southern Africa it is, at least for now, a different story, with an annual increase of 4% and a total population of 300,000. Elephants are currently doing well in this region. In some parks, like Kruger National Park, because of the lack of corridors between reserves, you are looking at an overpopulation where the number of elephants are actually threatening to destroy ecosystems. Many reserves try to solve this by contraception, a way of giving birth control to female elephants. This has shown to be quite successful most places.
Here are a few projects and organizations you can support to help save the African elephant: