African elephant (Loxodonta africana)

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African elephant family
IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable VULNERABLE

Top facts

  • The skull of the African elephant is huge, making up 25% of its body weight.
  • African elephants grow throughout their lives, but the rate slows after sexual maturity.
  • The upper lip and nose of the African elephant are extended to form the trunk.
  • African elephants use sounds well below the range of human hearing to communicate over long distances.
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African elephant fact file

African elephant description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderProboscidea
FamilyElephantidae
GenusLoxodonta (1)

Perhaps one of the world’s most emotive and iconic animals, the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest living terrestrial mammal, with the largest recorded individual reaching a massive four metres at the shoulder and weighing an impressive ten tonnes (2). The African elephant’s brain is bigger than that of any other animal and its skull is exceptionally large, having evolved to support the trunk and the heavy teeth and jaws. The skull comprises up to 25 percent of the elephant’s total body weight (2).

Preliminary genetic evidence suggests that there may be at least two species of African elephants: the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) (1). The forest elephant can be distinguished from the savanna elephant by its smaller body size, smaller ears, and its straighter, downward-projecting tusks (5). However, many conservationists believe there is not yet sufficient evidence to justify this distinction (5), and that premature allocation into more than one species may leave hybrids in an uncertain conservation status (1).

Elephants are unusual among mammals in that they continue to grow throughout their life, although the rate at which they grow slows after they reach sexual maturity (5). The hefty body of the African elephant is supported by stocky, pillar-like legs which have thick, heavy, vertically-aligned bones (2) (6). The African elephant has four toes on the forefeet and three toes on the hind feet, unlike both the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), which each have five toes on the front feet and four toes on the hind feet (2). The feet are broad and the toes are embedded in a fatty substance which cushions the weight of the animal and enables it to move more quietly (2).

The thick skin of the African elephant is generally dull brownish-grey, with a sparse scattering of black, bristly hairs. The skin is wrinkly and adapted for keeping the body cool, as the wrinkles increase the surface area of the skin, trapping moisture which then takes much longer to evaporate than if the skin was smooth (5). The end of the tail is flattened and has a tuft of coarse, crooked hairs (7).

The characteristic outward-curving tusks of the African elephant are actually elongated upper incisors (2) (7), which are formed from a unique composition of calcareous materials (2). Both the male and female African elephant have tusks and, like the rest of the body, the tusks continue to grow throughout the elephant’s life (2) (7).

The upper lip and nose of all elephant species are elongated and muscular, forming the distinctive trunk. The African elephant uses its trunk to form and amplify vocalisations, to feed from the ground and from trees and shrubs, to break off branches, and to pick leaves, shoots and fruits. It is also used to aid drinking, greeting, touching and other social behaviours (2). The end of the trunk has two prehensile finger-like lips which are covered in fine, sensory hairs (2) (7) (8).

The large, oversized ears of the African elephant are distinguished from other elephant species by the presence of overhanging flaps along the upper edges (6). As well as playing a role in communication, the ears are also important in temperature regulation and heat loss. A rich network of blood vessels is found immediately beneath the thin skin which covers the back of the ears, and when temperatures rise the ears are fanned to help increase the flow of air and cool the blood through evaporation (2) (6).  

Also known as
savanna elephant.
Synonyms
Loxodonta africana africana.
French
Éléphant Africain, Éléphant d'Afrique.
Spanish
Elefante Africano.
Size
Male head-body length: 6 - 7.5 m (2)
Female head-body length: 5.4 - 6.9 m (2)
Male shoulder height: c. 3.3 m (2)
Female shoulder height: c. 2.7 m (2)
Average male weight: 6 tonnes (2)
Average female weight: 3 tonnes (2)
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African elephant biology

African elephant society is highly complex and arranged around family units composed of groups of closely related females and their calves. Each family unit contains around ten individuals (7), led by an old female known as the 'matriarch' (2). Family units often join up with other bands of females to form 'kinship groups' or ‘bond groups’, and larger herds may number well over a hundred individuals (8). The male elephant leaves its natal group at puberty and tends to form much more fluid alliances with other males (2).

The African elephant communicates with other elephants in a variety of ways. For example, changes in the posture and position of the tail, head, ears and trunk convey visual signals and messages, while smell plays a significant role in maintaining social contact within the herd, in detecting threats, and in assessing the health or sexual condition of another elephant. Touch is also an important method of communication, and the elephant will use its dextrous, tactile trunk in greetings and other social behaviours (2) (5).

Vocalisations, however, provide the primary mode of communication between individuals (2) (5). The distinctive, trumpeting call of the elephant is produced mainly in excitement or surprise, during attack, or when playing, while the most common elephant vocalisation is a growl used in warning and to maintain contact between individuals (2).

Other sounds made by the African elephant range from high-pitched squeaks to deep rumbles, and two-thirds of the calls are emitted at a frequency below the range of human hearing (2) (5) (10). These low frequency sounds enable the African elephant to communicate over large distances (2) (5), with some calls being heard by other elephants at distances of at least eight kilometres (5). It is thought that the ability of the African elephant to communicate over such distances is essential to successful reproduction, as male and female elephants tend to range separately for much of the year. During the female’s short oestrus period, which lasts only two to four days, the female will emit a series of powerful, low-pitched calls to attract breeding males from several kilometres away (2).

The African elephant is extremely long-lived, sometimes surviving for up to 70 years (5). Although the female African elephant may reach sexual maturity at 10 years old, it is most fertile between the ages of 25 and 45 (2). There is no distinct breeding season and the female will typically produce a calf every three or four years, although the interval between births may be longer when conditions are not favourable (2), and birth peaks in certain areas may relate to the local rainfall patterns (11).

Elephant calves are born after an exceptionally long gestation period of nearly two years, and continue to be dependent on the female for several years (2). The calves are also cared for by other females in the group, especially by young females known as 'allomothers' (2). The social bonds between elephants are very strong, and if faced with danger the group will form a protective circle around the young calves, with the adults facing outwards and the matriarch adopting a threatening pose or even charging the intruder (2). African elephants are known to care for their wounded and also show recognition of, and particular interest in, elephant bones (12).

African elephant groups will spend the day wandering their home range in search of food and water (2). During the wet season, the African elephant feeds mainly on grasses, as well as leaves from a range of trees and shrubs. It will often dig for roots after the first rains of the season, and will also eat flowers and fruits when they are abundant. At other times of the year, the African elephant will also feed on the woody parts of trees and shrubs (2). An adult elephant requires 160 kilograms of food a day; using its highly mobile trunk it plucks at grasses and leaves, or tears at branches and bark with its tusks, which can cause enormous damage (8). The African elephant also needs to consume an extraordinary amount of fluid each day, and in the dry season, may dig holes into dried river beds in search of water (2).

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African elephant range

The African elephant occurs largely in eastern, southern and western Africa (9), although its populations are becoming increasingly fragmented (7).

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African elephant habitat

The African elephant is found in a wide variety of habitats, including savanna, grassy plains, miombo woodlands and forests, Sahelian scrub, swamps, bushlands and even deserts (1) (5) (9).

This species occurs over a range of altitudes, from sea level to high mountains (1) (5).

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African elephant status

The African elephant is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and is listed on Appendix II on the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (3).

This species was previously listed on Appendix I of CITES, but African elephant populations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have since been transferred back to Appendix II (4).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable

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African elephant threats

All species of elephant have been hunted over the centuries for their tusks, which are traded as ivory (2). In the 1970s to 1980s, an increased demand for ivory had a negative impact on elephant numbers across much of this species’ range (13). Kenya was one of the worst affected countries (9), where the elephant population plummeted by perhaps as much as 85 percent between 1973 and 1989 (13). Poaching for meat has also been a major cause of the African elephant’s decline (1)

Today, one of the major issues in elephant conservation is the conflict between elephants and the growing human population (1) (2). Up to 70 percent of the African elephant’s range occurs outside of protected areas (1), where it frequently causes widespread damage to agriculture and water supplies (13). This conflict often results in injury or death for both people and elephants (11).

The loss and fragmentation of elephant habitat due to rapid human population expansion and land conversion is also currently considered to be a significant threat to the African elephant (1).

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African elephant conservation

A ban on international trade in elephant products, including ivory, was implemented in 1990, when the African elephant was added to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). However, the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have since been transferred to Appendix II. Listing on either Appendix I or II of CITES means that trade is either permitted only in exceptional circumstances (Appendix I) or that trade should be carefully controlled in order to ensure this species’ survival (Appendix II) (4).

Sport hunting of the African elephant remains permitted under the legislation of a number of range states, and several countries currently have CITES export quotas for elephant trophies (1). Nevertheless, protection of this species has been high profile in many countries, often involving armed guards, and the Kenyan Wildlife Service famously burnt a stockpile of tusks in protest against the ivory trade (8).

Conservation measures for the African elephant include habitat management and protection through law enforcement. Where management initiatives have been successful, elephant populations may reach fairly high densities, and intervention in the form of the administration of contraceptives or the translocation of individuals is sometimes needed to reduce the threat to local habitats, species and the elephant population itself (1).

The African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) has set up a Human Elephant Conflict Working Group (HECWG) to address the issues of conserving a species that has the ability to be detrimental to human populations (15). Although the taxonomic status of the African elephant remains somewhat controversial, the African Elephant Specialist Group believes that different approaches are needed for the different problems facing the African elephant in each country and region, and conservation strategies are therefore developed at national or regional scales (5).

To help conserve this species by working in the field with Earthwatch, click here.
To learn more about a Whitley Award-winning conservation project for this species, click here.
View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

For more information on African elephant conservation:

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Authentication

Authenticated (09/02/06) by Julian Blanc, African Elephant Database Manager, IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group.
http://www.iucn.org/afesg/

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Glossary

Calcareous
Containing calcium carbonate, chalky.
Gestation
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
Home range
The area occupied by an animal during routine activities, which is not actively defended.
Hybrid
The offspring produced by parents of two different species or subspecies.
Incisors
The front or cutting teeth.
Miombo woodland
A type of woodland extending from Tanzania to northern South Africa, which is dominated by trees in the genus Brachystegia.
Natal
Site of birth.
Oestrus
The time of ovulation (release of an egg from the ovary) in female mammals, when the female becomes receptive to males. Also known as ‘heat’.
Prehensile
Capable of grasping.
Sahel
A semi-arid region in north-central Africa, south of the Sahara desert. The Sahel stretches across six countries from Senegal to Chad.
Taxonomic
Relating to taxonomy, the science of classifying organisms, grouping together animals which share common features and are thought to have a common ancestor.
Translocation
When individual living organisms from one area are transferred and released or planted in another area.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2012):
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Convention on Migratory Species (January, 2012)
    http://www.cms.int/
  4. CITES (October, 2011)
    http://www.cites.org/
  5. IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (February, 2006)
    http://www.iucn.org/afesg
  6. Kingdon, J. (1989) East African Mammals. Volume 3B: An Atlas of Evolution in Africa. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  8. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  9. Blanc, J.J., Thouless, C.R., Hart, J.A., Dublin, H.T., Douglas-Hamilton, I., Craig, G.C. and Barnes, R.F.W. (2003) African Elephant Status Report 2002: An Update from the African Elephant Database. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  10. Cornell Lab of Ornithology - The Elephant Listening Project (February, 2006)
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/brp/elephant/index.html
  11. Blanc, J. (2006) Pers. comm.
  12. McComb, K., Baker, L. and Moss, C. (2005) African elephants show high levels of interest in the skulls and ivory of their own species. Biology Letters, 2(1): 26-28.
  13. African Elephant Conservation Trust (July, 2002)
    http://www.elephanttrust.org/scope_and_objectives.htm
  14. Hoare, R. (2000) African elephants and humans in conflict: the outlook for co-existance. Oryx, 34(1): 34-38.
  15. Human Elephant Conflict Working Group (HECWG) (July, 2002)
    http://african-elephant.org/hec/index.html
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African elephant family  
African elephant family

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