African Elephant

African Elephant

Scientific Classification

Common Name
African elephant, savannah elephant
Genus Species
Loxodonta (slanting tooth) africana (from Africa)

Fast Facts

Largest of all land mammals, with large ears, a long trunk, and large tusks
3 to 4 m (10 to 13 ft.) tall at shoulder; 6 to 7.25 m long (20 to 24 ft.)
3200 to 6400 kg (7000 to 14000 lb.); females are smaller
Herbivore that eats all types of vegetation such as grasses, leaves, fruits, and bark
22 to 24 months
Sexual Maturity
Male: 10 to 20 years (bulls)
Female: 10 to 11 years (cows)
Life Span
Up to 70 years
Sub-Saharan Africa; There is a distinct subspecies, the forest elephant, found in the tropical forests of central Africa.
Found in forests, grasslands, marshes, scrub, and semi-desert areas
Global: No data
IUCN: Vulnerable
CITES: Appendix II
USFWS: Threatened

Fun Facts

  1. Elephants live in a highly organized social structure referred to as a matriarchal herd. The herd is typically composed of up to ten females and their young. All of the females in the herd are directly related to the matriarch, who is typically the oldest and largest female. Males beyond the age of maturity are with the herd only during mating.
  2. African elephants are capable of making a wide variety of vocal sounds, such as grunts, purrs, bellows, whistles, and the obvious trumpeting. Elephants are also capable of making low frequency sounds that are below the human range of hearing; this allows wandering individuals within the herd as well as several different herds to stay in direct contact over distances of many miles.
  3. The most obvious characteristic of elephants, besides their massive size, is their trunk. The trunk is nothing more than an elongation of their nose and upper lip. Besides being used for breathing and smelling it is also used as an appendage, much like an arm or hand. Elephants are capable of pulling up to 11.5 liters (3 gallons) of water into the trunk to be sprayed into the mouth for drinking or onto the back for bathing. They also use two finger-like projections that are at the tip to manipulate small objects and to pluck grasses.
  4. Female elephants are one of the few mammals other than humans who live beyond their reproductive years. The typical cow will end her reproductive period between 45 to 50 years. During this post-reproductive time she assists with the care of other young.
  5. For more information on elephants, explore our Elephants Infobook.

Ecology and Conservation

Elephants, like humans, have a great impact upon their environment. Elephants are referred to as a keystone species, a species upon which many other organisms depend. Elephants make pathways through the environment that are used by other animals to access areas normally out of reach. The pathways have been used by several generations of elephants, and today people are converting many of them to paved roads. During the dry season elephants use their tusks to dig into dry river bottoms to reach underground sources of water. These newly dug water holes may become the only source of water in the area. Forest elephants create clearings that allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. This gives ground vegetation a chance to grow and feed the smaller forest animals.

Elephants and people have always had an interesting relationship. People have had to contend with elephants destroying their crops. However, it is the elephants who have had the greatest burden. They have been hunted and poached for their ivory tusks, been prevented from migrating between feeding and water sites, and have lost due to conversion into agricultural areas and human dwellings. While the whole elephant population throughout Africa is declining, some countries in southern Africa have the opposite problem: too many elephants. The future of the elephant in Africa is a complex issue that will need to resolve overpopulation in some areas and underpopulation in others.


Benyus, Janine M.  Beastly Behaviors. Reading, Massachusetts. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1992.

Estes, Richard D. The Safari Companion. Post Mills, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1993.

MacDonald, David. The Encyclopedia of Mammals: 2. London: George Allen & Unwin Co., 1985.

Nowak, Ronald M.  Walker's Mammals of the World. Fifth edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.