Loxodonta africanaAfrican bush elephant

Geographic Range

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. (Estes, 1999)


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.

(CITES, 2001)

Physical Description

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
    7929.52 to 13215.86 lb
  • Average mass
    4540.00 kg
    10000.00 lb


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.

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
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average gestation period
    22 months
  • Average gestation period
    670 days
  • 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 (female)
    Sex: female
    4018 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    10-12 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    3650 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. (Eltringam, et al., August, 1992; Estes, 1999; Moss, 1988)

  • 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


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)


African elephants wander day or night in non-territorial herds that can reach 200 elephants, even one thousand during the rains. Their society is based on a social matriarchal community. The matriarch is the oldest female who leads a clan of 9 to 11 elephants. Only closely related females and their offspring are part of this herd because males wander alone once they reach maturity. The herd’s well being depends on the guidance of the matriarch. She determines when they eat, rest, bathe or drink. As the matriarch begins to be limited by advancing age, around 50-60 years old, the next oldest replaces her and she is either abandoned or leaves by herself.

Females in the herd practice motherhood by being allomothers to the calves. While the adults are sleeping (standing or lieing on their sides), these assistants must protect the babies and retrieve them if they stray too far. Males, however, leave the herd at maturity and wander alone or in bachelor herds. Around 25 years old, they begin to compete for mates. Elephants display dominance with a raised head, trunk, and ears. They also snap their ears, shake their heads, make trumpeting noises and rumbles. They display submission by leveling their ears, lowering their heads, rubbing their eyes and swaying.

African elephants are typically active during the day but herds in areas with high levels of human activity often become primarily nocturnal.

(Estes, 1999; CITES, 2001; Moss, 2001; Jackson, 1990)

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

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. (Estes, 1999; Moss, 1988)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • fruit


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. (Estes, 1999)

Ecosystem Roles

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. (Estes, 1999)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

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

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Elephant foraging and wandering sometimes result in crop damage and damage to villages. (Eltringam, et al., August, 1992; Estes, 1999; Jackson, 1990)

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

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.

(CITES, 2001)

Other Comments

Recent convincing genetic evidence suggests that the two subspecies of African elephants, L. a. africana and L. a. cyclopis, deserve separate species status. Extensive genetic divergence in 4 nuclear genes, along with distinct morphological and behavioral differences, suggests that these two kinds of elephants have been evolving independently for an estimated 2.5 million years. These results have profound implications for African elephant conservation efforts.

-There are many physical differences between Asian elephants, Elephus maximus, and African elephants, Loxodonta Africana. African elephants are larger, have darker skin, and bigger tusks in both sexes. Asian elephants rarely have tusks. Asian elephants have a round back and two mounds on their forehead, whereas the African elephant’s back curves downward and has a smooth forehead.

-Some parks in Africa are beginning to research elephants using radio-tracking systems. In this way they can observe their location, migratory patterns, and reproduction rates.

-The word jumbo derived from an English circus elephant named by his owner because of his size. Currently, the word is used as an adjective.

-Elephants typically walk 3-5 miles per hour and can reach 25 miles per hour by lengthening and quickening their strides. (Gordon, 1999; CITES, 2001; Moss, 2001; Estes, 1999)


Lindsay Norwood (author), Fresno City College, Carl Johansson (editor), Fresno City College.



living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


active at dawn and dusk

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

keystone species

a species whose presence or absence strongly affects populations of other species in that area such that the extirpation of the keystone species in an area will result in the ultimate extirpation of many more species in that area (Example: sea otter).


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night


having more than one female as a mate at one time


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


The term is used in the 1994 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals to refer collectively to species categorized as Endangered (E), Vulnerable (V), Rare (R), Indeterminate (I), or Insufficiently Known (K) and in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals to refer collectively to species categorized as Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), or Vulnerable (VU).


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


"CITES fact sheet- Loxodonta Africana" (On-line). Accessed September 28, 2001 at http://www.livingplanet.org/resources/publications/species/cites/fs_afeleph.html.

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.

Jackson, P. 1990. Endangered Species, Elephants. Secaucus, New Jersey: Chartwell Books.

Moss, C. 1988. Elephant Memories. New York: William and Morrow Co.

Moss, C. 2000. "Elephant [Article]- World Book Americas Online Edition" (On-line). Accessed October 4, 2001 at http://www.aolsvc.worldbook.aol.com/wbol/wbPage/na/ar/co/177700?op1=&st1=African+Elephants&op2=&st2=&op3=&st3=.