Zookeeper Journal

African Elephant
(Loxodonta africana)

Status in the wild: Endangered 

The sun hung low in the western sky as the herd moved single-file, slowly and deliberately, following the well-worn trail first engineered by their ancestors. They spent the long day gathering food, mostly grass and herbs. Sometimes they would shred or uproot trees and carve whole sections of earth for minerals and salt. What they left behind was environmental destruction on a scale that comes second only to humans. And now the elephants are thirsty!

The 15-member herd, consisting mostly of related mothers and their calves, emerge from the Samburu bush of Kenya onto a narrow, rocky ledge that slopes down to the river. The current, accelerated by recent rains, flows swiftly. A sunbathing crocodile withdraws, darting into the water. The elephants have nothing to fear from crocodiles. In fact, no land animal is safer from predators, although lions and hyenas can take down elephant calves and, therefore, they are treated as enemies.

The welfare of the herd depends on the leadership of the dominant cow, or matriarch: they go where she goes, feed when she feeds, and drink when she decides that it's safe. The matriarch ambles cautiously to the river's edge and samples the water with the tip of her trunk. She draws the water up through her trunk and tips her head back, discharging the cool, refreshing liquid into her mouth, a skill that takes elephants about a year to master.

Following the matriarch's lead, the herd disperses along the riverbank and begin drinking fervently. Calves that haven't quite learned the use of their trunks kneel down and drink directly from their mouth. One calf, timid of the rapidly flowing water, suckles milk from his mother's teat instead.

Adults will drink as much as 26 gallons (98 litres) of water at one time or up to 60 gallons (227 litres) in a day. Where water is abundant, elephants enjoy wallowing in the shallows or using their trunks as a shower. Tonight, the elephants are so preoccupied with quenching their thirst that they are oblivious to the approaching lioness. 

Downstream, a lioness ambles through the bush, a couple hundred yards away from the elephants, separated by tall scrub. She strolls casually, unsuspecting of the elephant herd in her path. Back at the river bank, the elephant closest to the scrub, a juvenile female, jerks her head abruptly. Elephants have poor vision, but they have an acute sense of smell and excellent hearing. The juvenile raises her trunk, spreads her ears and waits.

Moments later, the juvenile turns on her heels. She retreats closer to the herd, stumbling through a mass of brush that crunch loudly under her feet. The lioness stops dead in her tracks. She raises her head high, trying to see above the scrub. Finally she catches sight of the elephants now alarmed and fully alert. Her eyes grow wide. Wisely, she yields, dashing off into the brush. Had the lioness stumbled onto the herd, the confrontation might not have ended well for her. As far as the lion's concerned, the elephant is nature's true king of beasts.

African elephants are the largest land animals on Earth. Adult males will weigh five to seven tonnes (5000-6000 kg). They are slightly larger than females, reaching lengths of 19 to 24 feet including the trunk, and they stand anywhere from 10 to 13 feet.

Elephant skin is either grey or brown, and is mostly naked except for scattered bristles and sensory hairs. The skin has many folds and, in some places, may be as much as one-inch thick, but it is extremely sensitive to sunburn and insect bites. To protect their skin, elephants roll in dust and mud and they will throw dust on their backs with their trunks.

The trunk is actually a muscular elongation of the nose and upper lip equipped with two finger-like projections at the tip. In adults, this nasal appendage contains 40,000 to 100,000 muscles, enabling the trunk to grab, drink, squirt, toss and coil. Elephants can use their trunks to pick up objects as small as peas or tear off large limbs from trees. Trunks also enable the elephant to feed 20 feet higher than giraffes can reach.

The most distinguishing feature of African elephants are their huge, fan-like ears (the ears are smaller on their Asian counterparts). Flapping causes the large blood vessels in the ears to cool, thus helping the elephant control its body temperature. In addition, their ears are extremely sensitive to sound, especially at low frequencies. Recent studies establish that elephants communicate over long distances by producing powerful low frequency rumbles that humans cannot hear. When a bull is calling you might see vibrations in the forehead and you might actually feel them if you're very close!

Elephants are highly adaptable, living in savannahs or forests. They often migrate along routes that are taught from one generation to the next. Their habitat in Africa extends south of the Sahara, although agricultural and human expansion mostly restricts elephants to parks and preserves. Conflict often occurs when elephants raid farms for fruits and vegetables.

Elephants will eat almost anything that's green, although grass, shoots, buds of trees and shrubs are preferred. They will feed on an estimated 100-1000 pounds of vegetation per day for periods lasting up to 16 hours. However, they are destructive eaters, uprooting and scattering as much food as is eaten.

Large tusks are present in both sexes (they only appear on males of the Asian species), and are actually elongated upper incisors.  Tusks are used for gathering food, prying bark off trees, or as weapons, mostly during mating contests. Basically, the elephant with the largest tusks wins. Since tusks grow continuously into old age the oldest elephants are the biggest tuskers and do most of the breeding. 

Bulls experience a periodic hormonal cycle called musth, which is characterised by a heightened state of aggressive and sexual tendencies. Physical manifestations include high blood testosterone levels, urine dribbling, aggression, and heavy secretions from the temporal scent glands near the eyes. Both sexes have these scent glands, but they are three times larger in males. The sticky secretion flows copiously and stains the elephant's cheeks. This secretion is typically rubbed on trees and rocks, but it is particularly evident during musth, accompanied by a pungent odour.

Musth bulls search incessantly for breeding opportunities and they often prefer cows in heat. Cows also seem to prefer a musth bull, but can successfully breed whether the bull is in musth or not. However, a bull not in musth will usually avoid getting in the way of bulls that are.

Cows are in heat roughly every month for two to six days.  Once impregnated by the male's sperm, the gestation period lasts approximately 22 months and results in the birth of a single calf, but on occasion twins may be born. The 175 to 250 pound calf will stand shakily and begin to nurse a few hours after birth. Using its mouth, not its trunk, the calf suckles on the mammary glands located between the mother's front legs. 

Calves will nurse well into their third year, but remain dependent on their mothers for eight to ten years. Adolescence occurs at 12 to 14 years of age and most of their physical growth is reached by 20, although growth continues throughout life where the largest elephants are usually the oldest. They can live 65 to 70 years.

Elephants live together in a complex matriarchal society, consisting of eight to 15 related members led by the dominant female, or matriarch. Three or four generations of cows and calves spend their entire lives together with the exception of males who leave the herd at 12 years or later and wander solo or live in bachelor herds, typically consisting of two to 14 males. Groups of related families stay in fairly close range of each other, seldom straying more than 50 yards from a neighbour. In times of danger, kin groups will mass and form herds of 200 or more.

Elephants once roamed in the millions all over Africa, but the Twentieth Century saw a decline in both elephant numbers and their habitat: First through excessive poaching, and then by the expansion of human communities in previously remote areas.

Over the decades the demand for ivory from elephant tusks made poaching more profitable and resulted in huge losses for the elephants. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, during the 1930's and 1940's Africa had between three million and five million elephants. From the late 1960’s onward the total elephant population in Africa declined dreadfully to 1.3 million by late 1981. By 1986 this number fell to 750,000. In some countries of eastern and western Africa, the elephant loss was up to 80 percent!

Most conservationists proposed that the only way to prevent these catastrophic losses was to ban the international trade of ivory. Worldwide concern over the elephants' plight helped create this ban in 1989. As a result, in 1990 the price of raw ivory fell dramatically as did poaching incidents in East Africa. Today, it is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 elephants remain, scattered mostly in central and southern Africa. In Western Africa, elephants are still caught in the hunter's cross-hairs.

Just a few decades ago the Ivory Coast boasted of having Western Africa's largest elephant population; elephants were seen on national emblems and used as a symbol for the country's oldest political party. Now, there are fewer than 2,000 elephants left and many Ivory Coast citizens have never even seen one! Historically, the Ivory Coast has been the most stable and richest nation in the region. One can only imagine what the situation is like in places of enduring conflict like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and southern Senegal, where no reliable data on elephant populations exist. Elephants living in these countries are more likely to be killed for food and for their tusks.

Where there are tougher conservation laws, elephant populations appear to have stabilised simply because there are more births to make up for those being killed by poachers. However, where there is competition for arable land, farmers have been killing elephants. Usually, conflicts occur when elephants eat crops that are planted along migration routes.

Many African farmers believe that the earth belongs to them and the animals should know where not to go. They do not see the incentive for protecting elephants when their livelihood is at stake. Also, some countries, especially where there is no wildlife tourism, often don't have enough money to pay for conservation programmes or to hire enough anti-poaching patrols. In other instances, laws against hunting elephants are poorly enforced or widely disregarded. Although the Ivory Coast has banned all hunting since 1974, game is still available in any neighbourhood restaurant.

Even with international monitoring systems in place, many conservationists still feel sceptical about any government's commitment to save elephants. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, Senegalese poachers with ties to government officials in West Africa have long controlled the illegal ivory trade. Some ivory traders remain unconvinced for the need for conservation simply because they are unable, or unwilling, to comprehend the concept of extinction.

Fortunately, there are many people who are unwilling to accept extinction and they are doing everything they can to give elephants a fighting chance for survival.


Sources and Suggested Readings:

  • Moss, Cynthia.  Elephant Memories. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  • Moussaieff Masson, Jeffrey. When Elephants Weep, New York: Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1995.
  • Owens, Delia and Mark. The Eye of the Elephant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992.