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African Elephants


Loxodonta africana

The currently recognized subspecies within the species of Loxodonta africana are L.a. africana or South African bush elephant; L.a. Knochenhaueri or East African bush elephant; L.a. oxyotis or West African bush elephant. Recently it was discovered that the L.a. cyclotis or African forest elephant is a separate species from the bush elephant.

Although it is commonly believed that the genus was named by Georges Cuvier in 1825, Cuvier spelled it Loxodonte. An anonymous author romanized the spelling to Loxodonta and the ICZN recognizes this as the proper authority.

* Species Loxodonta adaurora, extinct, presumed antecedent of the modern African elephants.
* African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana).
* African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis)

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, longer and narrower mandible, rounder ears, and are smaller in height and weight than savannah/desert elephants (Loxodonta africana africana) who usually are found in grasslands. Bush and Forest Elephants were formerly considered subspecies of the same species Loxodonta africana. However, they are nowadays generally considered to be two distinct species. With regard to the number of toenails: the African Bush Elephant normally has 4 toenails on the frontfoot and 3 on the hindfoot, the African Forest Elephant normally has 5 toenails on the frontfoot and 4 on the hindfoot (like the Asian elephant), but hybrids between the two species commonly occur.

Geographic Range and Habitat

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 their population is primarily limited to the protected areas of national parks and game reserves. The African elephant occupies a variety of habitats, from open grassland to forested areas to mountainous regions to semi-desert. Its distribution includes most of the African continent south of the Sahara. African elephants are herbivores, and are predominantly grazers rather than browsers. An African elephant can consume 150 to 300 pounds of food in a day. In fact, because of its great size, strength and need for enormous quantities of food and water, its impact on its environment can be severe. In addition, poaching, habitat destruction and the encroachment of human populations on its habitat and migration routes have caused wild numbers to rapidly decline.

Physical Description

African elephants are the heaviest land animal, and the second tallest in the Animal Kingdom. They are a sexually dimorphic species – males larger than females – with males reaching a height of 12-14 feet and a weight of 6 to 7 tons. Females are smaller in size and weight. The African elephant has large ears that almost cover its shoulders. Some people say that they look like the shape of Africa.

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 that grow throughout the animal’s life. A tusk can grow 8 feet long (245-250 cm) and can weigh over 130 pounds (60 kg) each. Both sexes typically grow tusks, but the males’ tusks are longer and heavier. Tuskless male and female elephants have been observed. The only other teeth they have are four molars – two on the upper jaw and two on the lower jaw – which are replaced seven times throughout their lives after the previous set wears down. African elephants have dark gray skin which is scattered with black hairs. Their skin is about 2 1/2 inches (2-4 cm) thick, but flies, mosquitoes and parasites still can cause the animal discomfort.

Reproductive Behavior

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. Female African elephants become reproductive at about 10 – 12 years of age, usually giving birth to a single calf after an average of 659 days (22 months) of gestation. Newborns average 3 feet tall and about 250 pounds and are usually weaned between 2 to 4 years of age. Twins are rare. Calves 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. A female calf will usually stay with the herd she was born into her entire life. A typical female will give birth every 3 to 6 years, allowing for about 7 offspring in her 50-year life span.

Male African elephants leave the herd at puberty and maintain loose relationships with other males as they mature. A wild male begins breeding in his 30s when he attains the size and weight to compete against other adult males for fertile females. 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. The oldest, largest males do most of the breeding; leaving the younger bulls to roam as they age and grow in size and strength. Males constantly search for mates and rarely stay for more than a few weeks with a female and her herd.


African elephants wander 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. Females in the herd practice motherhood by being allomothers to the calves. These assistants play with and babysit babies and retrieve them if they stray too far. African elephants are typically active during the day but herds in areas with high levels of human activity often become primarily nocturnal.

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 turning their behind to the dominant animal, leveling their ears, lowering their heads and vocalizing.

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 grasses and herbs. During dry seasons in the savannah they eat grasses, leaves, bark 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


The African elephant lives about 50 years, they continue to grow in height during their lives (Estes, 1999; Eltringam, 1992). Deaths from poaching still outnumber any natural or accidental occurrences of death in elephants.


Known predators
* lions (Panthera leo)
* hyenas (Hyaeninae)
* humans (Homo sapiens)

The size and strength of healthy adult elephants leaves them less susceptible to predation by lions. Humans are the primary predator of adult elephants. Calves are vulnerable to lions and hyenas. If they sense a predator nearby, the largest cows instinctively herd the calves into the center of the herd.


Poaching significantly reduced the population of Loxodonta in certain regions during the 20th century. The African elephant nominally has governmental protection, but poaching is still a serious issue.

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List: Vulnerable.
US Federal List: Threatened.
CITES: Appendix I, Appendix II (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe)

The African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988 is in full effect today, which bans any trade in ivory from elephants residing in Appendix I nations and only limited sell of ivory with CITES approval from Appendix II nations.