African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

African Elephant

Loxodonta africana (Blumenbach, 1797)

Photo: Doug Lee

German:Afrikanischer Elephant
French:Elephant d' Afrique
Shona:Nzou / Zhou
Herero:Ndhlovu / Ndjou

Conservation Status:

African savannah elephant = Vulnerable (VU)
African forest elephant = Endangered (EN)
Asian elephant = Endangered (EN)

Numbers of the African elephant population has dwindled from in the millions in former times to between 470,000 and 690,000 in March 2007. Poaching for ivory has taken its toll. There are less than 52 000 Asian elephant left in the wild. The English name elephant means a large bow as taken form Latin (phant = large) and Greek (ele = bow).



Family:Elephantidae; Moeritheridae; *Gomphotheridae; *Mastodontidae (Mastodons); *Dinotheridae
Subfamily:Eliphantinae; *Stegodontinae, Genus: *Stegodon; *Lophodontinae,
Genus: *Stegomastodon & *more
Tribe:Elephantini; *Belodontini, Genus: *Tetrabelodon & *Stegotetrabelodon
Subtribe: Loxodontina; *Primelephantina, Genus: *Primelephas & *Hypselephas;
Elephantina, Genus:Elephas & *Mammuthus



(* = Extinct groups & species)

The elephants, the hyrax or klipdassie, the dugong Dugong dugon and the manatee Trichechus spp, shared a common pig-like ancestor, Moeritherium some 60 million years ago. Moeritherium was 60 cm high, with a sharp ivory tusk on both sides of the muzzle, and was widely distributed through northern Africa. This was followed by the Gomphotherium which spread into Europe and Asia, and later gave rise to the genus Stegolophodon the stegodonts in Asia around 4.8 million years ago. The stegodonts comprised of 12 species, which all had four ivory tusks and became extinct 4 100 years ago. In parallel to the stegodont, the mastodon with only two ivory tusks originated in Africa. The mastodon later gave rise to Primelephas which is a common ancestor to the mammoths of the genus Mammuthus, with 11 species, Loxodonta and Elephas . Two of the mammoth species were endemic to Africa, M. africanayus the African mammoth and M. subplanifrons the South African mammoth. Various rock art are still found in Europe exhibiting humans trapping the hairy mammoth M. primigenius and the imperator mammoth M. imperator in dug pits. The mammoth has spread from Europe through Asia and into North America and the last animal was hunted down by man in Asia 3 500 years ago.

Extant elephant species:

  •     Loxodonta africana the African savannah or African bush elephant
  •     Loxodonta cyclotis the African forest elephant, formerly also referred to as L. pumilio or   African pygmy elephant
  •     Elephas maximus the Asian elephant with
  •     E.m. indicus the Indian elephant
  •     E.m. maximus the Sri Lankan elephant
  •     E.m. sumatrensis the Sumatran elephant
  •     E.m. borneensis the Borneo elephant

More recently Africa hosted another subspecies Loxodonta pharaoensis, the North African bush elephant, also referred to as the war-elephant that was used by Hannibal during the Punic Wars in Ancient Roman times from 218-201 BC. It became extinct between 100 and 200 AC.

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The legs of the elephant are positioned closer to underneath the body to support the extensive body mass. The digits of the toes are supported by an elastic cushion of lipids and muscle which forms an extended flat walking surface. The interior hollows of the bones of elephant are re-enforced with a network of bone-fibre. The enormous skull however is poriferous to reduce the mass that are to be carried by the neck vertebrae. The lungs are attached to the diaphragm and respiration is propelled by muscular movements and not by negative air pressure as for other mammals. If wounded through the lungs by a bullet, elephant suffocates much quicker than other mammals. The testicles of males are permanently inside the body.

The African savannah elephant is the largest off all extant species with a shoulder height for bulls of 3.2-3.6 m and a body mass of 5 000-6 500 kg. Cows are much smaller at 2.0-2.6 m and 2 500-2 800 kg. The African forest elephant has an adult shoulder height of 2.3-2.8 m and a mass of 2 800-3 200 for bulls and 1 800-2 500 for cows. The extinct North African elephant measured 2.5 m at the shoulder for adult bulls. Asian elephant have an average adult shoulder height of 3.2 m for bulls and 2.4 m for cows and an average mass of 5 400 kg for bulls and 2 700 kg for cows. The forest elephant has a rounder head with rounder ears than the savannah elephant and its tusks are straight with darker coloured ivory and the skin is hairless. The tusks of the savannah elephant are curved and lighter in colour and the skin is sparsely covered with short spike-like hair. Crossbreeding between the two species is common in areas with overlapping habitats.

Elephants bare only six molars in each cheek through its lifespan of which only one is apparent and functional at any given time. The 1st molar appear at 1 year age, the 2nd at 2 years, the 3rd at 6 years, the 4th at 15 years, the 5th at 28 years and the 6th at 47 years. Once the 6th molar has worn out the animal dies from starvation.

The skin is 14-18 mm thick and needs constant moisturising from body liquids to sustain elastic flexibility. At moderate temperature a sub-adult of 1 200 kg loses 2.5 litre of water per hour through its skin. Resting in the shade of trees, showering the body with a spray that is sucked up with the trunk, and the covering of the body with dust and mud, act as essential protection against heat exhaustion. The large ears of 120x180 cm exchange body heat to the exterior. The ears are also used to display power and aggression. The brain is the size of a rugby ball and is positioned more to the anterior of the skull, 15 cm above the eyebrow. The silhouette line of the forehead of cows is more square-shaped and that of bulls more round-curved. Elephant walking pace is 10 km/hr and it charges at 45 km/hr or 11 m/s. They have poor eyesight but excellent smell and hearing. Infants and young are immensely protected by all members of the herd. When a young dies or an infant is born dead the herd will guard the site for several days. Communal elephant grave yards are common where old post-mature individuals go to die. They are good swimmers and will cross rivers and lakes fully emerge with only the tip of the trunk above the water.

Comparison To Man


Both sexes carry two ivory tusks with a measured record size of 102.3 and 97 kg per tusk. The tusks are specialised canines that grow continually throughout the animal‚ lifespan. The tusk ends wears of constantly as they dry out and splinters. Bulls with rudimentary tusks and cows without tusks become more common in confined and isolated populations. It is especially evident in the population of the Zambezi Valley, in the Addo Elephant National Park and amongst the individuals in the Knysna forests. The largest recorded African elephant is a bull from the Qundo River valley in south-eastern Angola, of 12 193 kg and a shoulder height of 4.128 m, hunted in 1955. By the 1989 CITES confederation the trade in all elephant products is strictly prohibited. As a result special CITES permits are needed for the hunt of an elephant.

Habitat requirement

African savannah elephant adapt well to a broad spectrum of habitats from 150 mm rainfall in deserts to 1 400 mm in sub-tropical savannah and tropical grasslands. Swamps, marshes and open to moderate thick woodland are preferred. Savannah elephant do enter thickets but avoid forests by choice. The feeding value and nutrition of forest vegetation is insufficient. In contrast the African forest elephant are mostly restricted to tropical rainforests and closed savannah within immediate vicinity of the forests.


Feeding & Nutrition

Elephants are equally active during day and night and feed up to 17.8 hours per day. The main resting time is before daybreak when they lie down flat on the side sleeping for up to 2 hours. They drink 2-3 times per day if water is readily available, or travel up to 40 km to reach waterholes to drink once every 2.5 days. The average daily water intake is 150-220 litre for bulls and 100-150 litre for cows. It is a rough-phage feeder of browse, bark, fruit, grass, sedges and water plants. Food composition changes from 80% grass and 20% browse in wet summer to 28% grass and 72% browse in dry winter. Preferred feeding height is 0.6-2.0 m, but bulls pull down branches with the trunk from as high as 6 m. Depending on the habitat an adult elephant will push over and uproot up to 6 trees per day to reach foliage, fruit and roots. Tree bark forms an essential part of the diet. In areas with mineral poor soils elephants will eat soil and will even dig for natural salts.

Medium height to tall, 16-150 cm, sweet grasses are favoured. Important species are Cynodon, Panicum, Setaria, Cencrus, Themeda, Hyparrhenia, Andropogon and Cymbopogon. Elephant do not thrive in sourveld habitats, whereas mixedveld habitats are marginal and sweetveld habitats optimal. Preferred browse include Grewia, Acacia, Adansonia, Sterculia, Azima, Combretum, Colophospermum, Terminalia en Portulacaria spesies. Only 44% of the dietary intake is digested in the hindgut and thus an elephant has to consume and pass large volumes of its low digestible roughphage to gain sufficient nutrition; bulls 250-300 kg fresh vegetation per day and cows 150-170 kg.

Social structure

Elephants are complex social animals with a matriarchal social structure with the oldest cow of between 38-60 years forming the centre. Family herds numbers 3-12 members comprising the leading alpha cow, her calves and her older daughters and their calves. Family members are tightly bond for life and older cows display a lot of physical contact with each other. Family herds frequently aggregate to form mass-herds of up to 300 (by exception 1 300). The individual families keep their structures in the mass-herds. Elephant are natural migrators that move across vast areas. Home ranges are not permanent and the sizes measures 14-52 km2 in forests, 1 800 km2 for breeding herds and 840-3 750 km2 for bulls in the grassy savannah plains of Kenya, and 240-720 km2 for breeding herds and 140-1 140 km2 for bulls in the bushveld of the Kruger National Park. No territorial behaviour and average walking distances are 12-20 km/day.

Calves are nursed by the entire family. When family herds become too large they split into sub-groups where the senior beta cows and their related offspring establish new family units. Young bulls that become sexually mature leave their mother herds to join a bachelor herd containing 2-35 bulls. When social maturity is reached a bull will temporarily accompany a family herd, only during the times of his frequent musth cycles. Adult bulls older than 30 years are mostly solitary. Some cows when they become post-mature and infertile after 50 years also turn solitary.


Bulls display a strong hierarchy of dominance between each other. Musth usually starts when bulls reach their mid-twenties. The temporal musth gland is the size of an orange and is situated in front of the ear beneath the eye. It becomes active once a year and may last for several days up to 3 months. A sticky oily substance is secreted and the animal‚ testosterone levels rise significantly. During this time a bull become extremely aggressive and agitated, with increased stamina, and seeks for cows that are in oestrus. A cow in oestrus is mated by more than one bull in musth that joins the herd during such time. Bulls in musth are temporarily superior in dominance over other bulls. Older bulls that are in musth have the power to suppress younger bulls from coming into musth.

The Elephant Management and Owners Association‚ (EMOA), P.O. Box 98, Vaalwater, 0530; Tel/Fax: (014) 755 4455 was established to assist elephant owners and managers.


Floppy-trunk disease is known from Zimbabwe and the Kruger national Park where paralysis of the trunk slowly proceeds from the tip towards the head, causing the animal to starve to death. Salmonellosis causes diarrhoea and fever and death in captive elephants. They are susceptive to foot-and-mouth disease. Walking through burnt veld or when trapped during veld fires causes severe tissue burn of the foot and lower legs, bringing an elephant to a standstill, followed by death due to dehydration and infection.

Information Table

 African Elephant Information Table (F = Forest Elephant; Sav = Savannah Elephant)


Adult body weight:  (F)




Adult shoulder height: (Sav)

Record body sizes 

4m, 10000kg  

2.9m, 3232kg  

Age of sexual maturity
Age of social adulthood (1st mating)

1st calf born at

Calving interval

Post maturity age (last mating)
Rutting season
Calving season

Weaning age years
Gender ratio: Natural (all ages)
Gender ratio: Production (all ages)
Mating ratio: Natural (adults)
Mating ratio: Production (adults)
Calf birth ratio
Spatial behaviour: Home range
Spatial behaviour: Territory range
Large stock grazing unit (adult):

6.2 per animal (28% of diet)
4.6 per animal (28% of diet)
Browsing unit (adult):

16.8 per animal (72% of diet)
11.2 per animal (72% of diet)
Maximum stocking load
2 animals per 1000 ha
Minimum habitat size required
Annual population growth
2-11% (mean 7%)


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