| The African elephant is currently the largest animal on land (there have been larger
animals in pre-historic times). It has a massive body, huge ears, pillar-like legs and
a nose extending in a trunk not seen in other animals. It is an unmistakeable animal.
During the early 1900's, the elephants in Africa numbered between 5 and 10 million,
but intense hunting and poaching culminating during the 1970's and 1980's decimated
them to between 500,000 and 750,000. Today, hunting is controlled and poaching has been
limited. Most populations are now found in protected areas between the Sahara Desert
in the north and the Zambezi River in the south. Small populations are found even further
The female herd
The elephant herd is a family unit, consisting of a matriarch leader (usually the oldest
female), her sisters, and one or more generations of their female descendants. The only
males found in these family herds are calves or juveniles that have not yet reached
The herd members are all related. If the herd grows too large, younger females may leave
and start a new herd, remaining in the same home range. This means that the different
herds seen in an area are usually related to each other. They stay in contact by using
infra sounds, a means of communication that has a reach of several kilometres/miles
and which remained unknown to us until the 1980's.
Young males are made to leave the herd when they become sexually mature, and may then
team up with a considerably older male or join a loosely connected herd of bulls. Such
herds are usually small. The male spends the rest of its life patrolling its home range,
on the lookout for opportunities to mate.
Females come into oestrus for a few days, at intervals as long as up to nine years.
The female announces her condition by using infra sound, whereupon males within hearing
range come hurrying to compete for the chance of mating with her. The winner is usually
the largest or most aggressive bull. A male's chances are considerably improved during
a rut state called musth, lasting for two to three months. Males in musth are highly
aggressive, due to an increased level of testosterone, and are often the partners preferred
After a 22 months gestation, one or (on rare occasions) two calves are born, weighing
about 120 kg/260 lb. The calves suckle for 34 years, but can survive on solid
food after 2 years. At the age of six, the calf's weight has reached 1,000 kg/2,200
Females reach sexual maturity after 8 to 20 (usually 10) years, depending on external
factors such as abundance of food and herd size, and has her fertility peak between
the age of 25 and 45 years. She stops breeding around the age of 50, and spends the
rest of her life caring for the herd, maybe as a matriarch; the life-long experience
of an old female is crucial to the herd for finding food and water enough, and for evading
dangers and hazards.
Males reach sexual maturity when 1014 years old, and are then forced to leave
The large and massive elephant body makes temperature regulation difficult, so elephants
prefer spending the hottest part of the day in the shade or in water. Elephants may
also cool themselves by flapping their huge ears (up to 3 m3/30 sq ft), which are full
of shallow blood vessels, where heat can be emitted. The ears are also used for signalling.
(For example, an elephant turning to face you and extending its ears is saying 'don't
come any closer, or...') Other means of communication are sound (grumbling, trumpeting
and bellowing), body posture (using the tail, the trunk and the ears) and infra sound,
which we humans can't hear.
Highly prized tusks
The elephant's tusks, which for thousands of years have been highly prized by humans
and have made us hunt elephants, are found with both males and females. Individuals
may lack tusks altogether, and most elephants in some local populations are tuskless.
The tusks keep growing throughout the elephant's life, and may weigh 60 kg/130 lb on
an old bull. Female tusks are slimmer and shorter, and may weigh around 10 kg/22 lb.
A set of two 130 kg/285 lb record tusks were 3.5 m/11.5 ft long.
The forest elephant, which was formerly regarded as a subspecies of the African elephant
but is now thought to be a separate species, is smaller and has smaller tusks. It is
not present in East Africa.
The tusks are prolonged and modified incisors (one kind of teeth) set in the upper jaw.
(Earlier and now extinct species in the elephant's evolution chain, for example the
seven million old Stegotetrabelodon, also had tusks in its lower jaw). Tusks
are used for digging for roots and water, for de-barking tree trunks and as weapons.
Elephants have six pairs of molars (another kind of teeth) in its upper and lower jaws.
The frontmost teeth are used for chewing, and fall out when worn down, whereupon the
next teeth in line are taken into use. When all six pairs are worn down, the toothless
elephant can't feed any more and dies.
Elephant graveyards, meaning a special place where elephants go to die, are a myth.
The massed elephant remains that may be the source of the legend were probably what
was left after hunters or poachers, natural disasters or drought killing herds. Old
elephants that have lost much of their chewing capacity may favour areas where soft
food is available, for exampel wetlands. The remains of many elephants may thus be found
in some such areas.
Elephants have been observed visiting the remains of dead herd members, and may react
aggressively if disturbed while doing it.
An elephant can't reach the ground using its mouth. Instead, it uses the trunk,
for example for picking up food or drinking. It doesn't drink through the trunk, though,
but sucks water into the trunk and then gushes it into its mouth. In a similar way,
it may spray water or dust on its body, to protect it from the sun, heat and insects.
The trunk is both strong and delicate, allowing the elephant to lift heavy objects such
as tree trunks, and precisely picking food such as leaves and fruits. The trunk can
also service as a snorkel, and is used for social touching.
Thanks to its size, a healthy mature elephant has no other enemy than human hunters.
(Very large prides of lions have been observed hunting and killing mature elephants
on rare occasions.) Calves may be attacked by the largest carnivores, mainly by lions.
Even though it may seem slow, wise and friendly, the elephant is considered one of the
most dangerous animals in Africa, together with hippos, buffalos and crocodiles. Elephants
feeling threatened may charge, and because of their size and speed (they run faster
than you), aggression is hard to fend off. You may avoid being noticed by staying quiet
and, mainly, by keeping on the lee-side of the animal, which has an excellent sense
of smell. Its eyesight isn't very good.
Aggressive elephants may be more common in areas where the herds have had bad experiences
from meeting humans. For example, older elephants in Tsavo National
Park in Kenya are said to dislike humans, remembering the heavy poaching some 30
to 40 years ago.
Threats to the species
Humans have hunted elephants from times immemorial, and are believed to have exterminated
several former elephant species. The heavy hunting from the 1900's has mainly ceased,
even though much poaching is still going on throughout Africa. The total population
has decreased so much that the African elephant today is listed as an endangered species.
The African elephant can, despite its sensitivity to temperature and its demand of huge
quantities of food and water, adapt well to many different biotopes, ranging from forests
to deserts. But growing human populations and expanding farming reduce the elephant
habitats, and today most elephants live in protected areas, such as national parks,
where they are relatively safe. But smaller parks
may be too small home ranges for the elephants, which have to over-utilize the resources
within the park, instead of searching for them over wider areas. Amboseli
National Reserve in Kenya is an example of such a park where the elephant populations
has proven too large. The regrowth of shrubs and trees has not kept up with the feeding
elephants, which means an even further habitat loss.
Elephants on safaris
Elephants may be seen in most Kenyan and Tanzanian parks visited on packaged safari
tours. (Lake Nakuru National Park and Nairobi
National Park are exceptions, where elephants cannot be seen.) In Masai
Mara and Serengeti,
you may see anything from single elephants up to herds of 30 or 40. In the best elephant
parks, such as Amboseli in Kenya and Tarangire
in Tanzania, larger herds may be observed.
The elephant is one of the five mammal species included in the Big
Five, and is an animal most safari-goers want to see. We have not been on,
or even heard of, any decently well-arranged safari in Kenya or Tanzania where elephants
have not been observed.