What a privilege to watch African Elephants! These 10 Facts about African Elephants are from what we’ve learned from personal observation, our Wildlife Heroes and some research. The photos and videos were either taken by Russ or myself. Enjoy!
10 Facts About African Elephants
The African Elephant is the largest living land mammal on the planet. There are basically two species of African Elephants: The larger Bush or Savannah Elephants and the smaller Forest Elephants. Some of the former, have adapted to dry, arid Namibia and are called Desert Elephants. Although they have really large feet, and are sometimes quite white because of the white dust of the Etosha Pan, they are not considered a separate species. The African bull Elephant (male) can grow up to 13 feet tall at the shoulders, measure up to 30 feet from trunk to tail, and weigh as much as 14,000 pounds. Perhaps that’s why the Elephant is the only mammal that can’t jump!
Although at first blush an elephant may look bald it really has hair unevenly distributed on its one-inch-thick wrinkly skin. An elephant, both male and female, have long (up to five inches), dark eyelashes to protect their eyes. Most mammals have clearly defined paw or hoof prints. The elephant’s foot however, is one big round circle (as much as 18 inches in diameter) with its toes barely making a mark.
The wrinkled skin of an elephant is not a sign of age but a means to retain moisture. After a mud bath, the moisture of the mud remains in the wrinkles to keep the animal cool and protected from the sun.
Unlike human teeth, an Elephant’s tusk continues to grow throughout its lifetime. An adult male’s tusk can grow about 7 inches a year, on average.
As far as those huge elephant ears go, they serve as a fan, and actually do even more. Each elephant ear has a complex network of blood vessels that help regulate body temperature. The average ear of a male African Elephant weighs over 100 pounds.
Research suggests Elephants communicate long distances using a sub-sonic rumble that travels along the ground faster than sound through air. Other Elephants supposedly receive these “messages” through their feet and trunks. Audible tummy rumbles can be observed while elephants vie for a turn at the waterhole. When it gets really serious Elephants make a loud trumpeting sound to demonstrate dominance. Flapping the ears while pretending to charge (referred to as a mock charge) is also communicating “back-off”.
Elephants are herbivores and need 300-400 pounds of food per day. Along with the usual grasses, leaves, bark and roots, they don’t hesitate to invade an unprotected banana or sugarcane farm field. However, hands-down the African Elephant’s favorite is the sweet marula fruit. During dry spells an Elephant will even eat thorn bushes.
Elephants have poor digestion; with only 50% efficiency they release an incredible amount of gas (methane) and deposit about 250 pounds of manure daily. Before you go thinking nature is messing up, a variety of insects and even the dung beetle make full use of elephant manure.
In addition to eating tons of food, adult Elephants drink between 30 and 50 gallons of water every day. No, they don’t drink through their trunks! However, it is used to suck up as much as 2.5 gallons of water, much like a giant straw. The water is then squirted into the mouth and swallowed. It makes a sound much like water being released into a large pipe.
During the dry season elephants dig holes, with their feet and tusks, in dry river beds till they find water.
Elephants’ brains are highly developed and as you can imagine, large. Actually, not surprisingly the largest in the animal kingdom. Their brain is 3 or 4 times larger than that of humans, although it is smaller in proportion to their enormous size.
Like a human, an elephant brain has a large cortex and is not born with survival skills. This makes new born calves vulnerable to lions, hyenas and crocodiles. A young elephant, like a human child, learn skills and behaviors from adults.
You may remember the old saying, “an Elephant never forgets”? They are extremely intelligent with excellent memories. This ability to remember is vital during the dry season when a matriarch guides her herd for countless miles to watering holes visited in the past. Elephants migrate seasonally to find food, again relying on their memories of previous food and water supplies. They also migrate to avoid poachers and other threats.
An elephant who has witnessed a poacher attack on his or her herd may subsequently be aggressive towards unsuspecting tourists in a safari vehicle. On the positive side; elephants will continue to stay out of farm crops once they’ve found them protected by beehive fences.
Besides its size, it’s the trunk that sets an elephant apart from other species. The trunk weighs around 400 pounds and contains around 100,000 different muscles. The elephant trunk serves as a nose, a hand, an extra foot, a signaling device, a tool for gathering food, siphoning water, dusting, digging and much more. However, an elephant does not drink through its trunk.
The elephant’s trunk is very similar to that of their ancient ancestors, the mammoth and mastodon. A large muscle on the top and sides enables the trunk to raise up. Thousands of smaller muscles allow for finer movements like picking up a piece of fruit and the like.
The trunk also comes in handy while swimming. It serves as a handy snorkel while crossing a deep river. Even young calves instinctively raise their floppy trunks when they become submerged.
Elephants are social creatures and live in herds. Herds are matriarchal, with older females taking turns caring for and protecting the calves. When a calf gets in trouble others generally come to the rescue. The young ones are all nudged to the center of the herd when there’s a perceived threat.
Bulls or males usually leave the herd for the solitary life between the ages of 12 to 15. Although typically found alone, they do temporarily hang out with other bulls. In contrast female Elephants develop deep family bonds with tight-knit groups of related adults and their offspring. A herd consists of anywhere from 8-100 Elephants, usually led by the oldest (and most often largest) matriarch.
Calves are raised by the whole herd, by the juveniles and the adults. Young elephants can be found playing much like school children. They especially enjoy romping in mud holes or testing out their bravery chasing birds or antelope. When a thirsty herd arrives at a waterhole the very young may be seen given first access to drink.
Supposedly Elephants’ brains are made such they display some remarkably human like emotions. For instance, they grieve when one of their herd dies, demonstrated by caressing the lost one gently with the trunk. Even more astonishing, elephants have been known to return years later to the skeletal remains of a deceased herd member.
Due to their individual and group size African Elephants require a lot of real estate to thrive. Like with many African species habitat loss is of grave concern.
In decades long gone by, elephants migrated up and down the continent of Africa. This worked well as it allowed the vegetation to regenerate from season to season assuring plenty of food. However, today elephant herds are largely restricted to protected areas. In some of these, like the Kruger National Park in South Africa, the carrying capacity has long been reached. This puts a huge stress on the habitat.
In other parts of Africa, the protected areas keep shrinking as human populations grow and spill over into preserves and parks. Protecting large enough habitats to sustain elephant populations is a pressing wildlife conservation issue.
What does the huge elephant have to fear? The African Elephant is definitely on top of the food chain. Although, it is not a predator, it does require a great deal of vegetation that others also contend for.
Periodically a pride of lions will attempt to take down an elephant, especially a younger, elderly or frail one. Otherwise, elephants pretty much rule as can readily be seen at a waterhole. Once the elephants arrive most other wildlife gives way, or waits.
However, there is one small creature the elephant fears, or maybe better put, respects. No, it’s not the mouse. Elephants aren’t afraid of mice; they are afraid of bees. Elephants have very sensitive trunks and bees seem to know this. Bees can therefor be used to deter elephants from entering tasty maize and banana crops. The tiny honey bee can serve as a peacemaker between humans and elephants.
There are two major conservation issues facing the African Elephant; poaching and human wildlife conflict.
Poaching: Some African elephant populations are still increasing in excess of the carrying capacity of their habitat in some parts of southern Africa. However, in many countries in East, Central and West Africa poaching is a far reaching problem.
In some countries an elephant is lost every 15 minutes! This high level of sophisticated plunder is decimating populations. This loss of adult elephants is devastating to the survival of the herd. Firstly, when the matriarch and other older elephants are killed the memories of where to find food and water is compromised. Secondly, having witnessed such aggression some of the youngsters in turn grow up to be aggressive and get themselves in trouble with farmers or tourists.
Elephants can give birth until they’re 50, and life expectancy is 60- 70. However, typically a female elephant only has four calves in her lifetime. Partly because of the long gestation period of 22 months and that they only give birth every three to four years.
In light of these realities, it is easy to see how the relentless poaching rapidly decreases elephant populations to dangerously low levels.
In 1989, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) banned the international ivory trade. Yet poaching for ivory continues to increase. Reportedly 800,000 African elephants have been killed over the last three decades.
Human Wildlife Conflict: Where humans and elephants live in close proximity conflict happens. With the human populations along protected areas ever increasing so is the conflict. However, unlike poaching, there is a relatively simple solution to human wildlife conflict in many areas. Elephants are instinctively afraid of bees. Wildlife conservationists have used this natural fear to the elephants’ advantage. Placing beehives on farm perimeters that border elephant habitat is successfully keeping them out of crop fields. This approach is minimizing, and in some places totally eradicating, incidents of human-elephant conflict.
Besides our own personal experience and stories told us by our Wildlife Heroes Elephant Conservation’s website was a great resource.
Care to get involved protecting elephants?