Derivation of scientific name Proboscidea derived from the Greek word proboscis meaning ‘before the mouth’, referring to the trunk of the elephant. Loxodonta from the Greek words loxo, meaning oblique-sided, and donta, meaning tooth.

Common names African elephant, elephant (Eng.); olifant (Afr.); elefante africano (Spanish, Castilian); éléphant africain, éléphant d’Afrique (French); indlovu (Zulu), tlou (Sotho), ndlopfu (Xitsonga).

Through the ages, the African elephant has captured the imaginations of people across the globe. No species has received more attention than the elephant. Not only is it the largest land animal, but its intelligence, extraordinary communication, similar lifespan to humans, strong sense of family and its uncanny ability to understand death have fascinated philosophers, poets, scientists and the general public alike.

How to recognise an African elephant

The African elephant is the largest land animal with bulls on average reaching a height of 4 m at the shoulder and weighing up to 7 000 kg. Males are larger than females of comparable age. The shape of the head also differs between males and females. In males the head is rounded, while the female head is angular. The African elephant is usually grey in colour, but often appears brown or reddish from wallowing in mud holes of coloured soil, which becomes plastered to the body.

The skin of the elephant can be as thick as 2.5 cm or more on some parts of the body such as on parts of the head and on the back, while it is paper thin in other areas such as the back of the ears and around the mouth. Young elephants are covered in brownish to reddish hairs, especially on their backs and head. As the elephant grows older the amount of hair reduces. The eyes of the elephant are small and are protected with long eyelashes.

Large ears function as heat radiators. Numerous blood vessels can be seen on the back (medial) sides of the ears where the skin is approximately 1–2 mm thick. These blood vessels allow for dissipation of heat by means of ear flapping on warm days when there is little or no wind. Gaps, holes and tears on the edges of the ears are one of the easier ways to distinguish between individual elephants and are often used in behavioural research studies to identify individuals.

The two incisor teeth of the elephant are modified into very prominent tusks protruding from the upper jaw. Tusks are indispensable, multipurpose instruments, which the elephant uses to dig for water, salt and roots, to debark trees, as levers to manoeuvre felled branches and trees, as a weapon for defence and as protection for the trunk. Elephant ivory has a unique engine-turned or diamond pattern when looked at in cross section.

The trunk of the elephant is a prehensile appendix and is often described as the elephant’s hand. It is a fusion of the nose and upper lip and has no bones or cartilage. In principle the trunk is a long cone operated by two major sets of muscles with a pair of two long, wide nasal tubes running down the middle. It has amazing strength, delicacy and versatility. The trunk is used to perform functions such as feeding, watering, dusting, smelling, touching, communicating and lifting, and also for defence.

An adult elephant can hold more than 8 litres of water in its trunk and uses the trunk to drink water and spray water, dust or mud all over its body as a means to cool down. Elephants are capable of picking a small feather of the ground with their trunk, without damaging the feather!

Getting around

For its size the elephant is amazingly mobile. Ever seen a wild elephant standing on its hind feet feeding on fruits high up in a tree or sliding down a high river embankment? Elephants can run, walk forwards and backwards, and swim, but cannot trot, canter, gallop or jump like a horse. They have two gaits, the walk and the amble. A walk can be slow or fast while the amble involves lifting two feet on one side together.


Elephants have a variety of means of communication and scientists are constantly finding out more about them. Their short range communication consist of tactile (touch), olfactory (smell) and visual displays, while over long distances they communicate through a large and varied repertoire of vocal sounds ranging from trumpeting to infrasonic calls too low for human hearing. Approximately 30 distinct different calls have been deciphered to date.

Female elephants can distinguish calls of family or bond group members from other ‘outsiders’. Matriarchs are able to distinguish around 100 different individuals by their call alone. Play-back experiments have shown that elephants can distinguish individual voices up to 2.5 km away. These calls are used to co-ordinate group movements and/or to warn others of danger. They also function as contact calls when group members are dispersed over large areas.

There has also been some recent studies showing that elephants are able to pick up seismic waves caused by stomping elephants (i.e. charges or running), or even low frequency rumbles. These waves travel through the ground and are picked up through special sensory corpuscles in the feet and trunk tip. The rumbles we often hear are not produced in the stomach (stomach rumbles) as so many believe, but rather by the larynx. Some calls such as the trumpet are modified by the resonance of the trunk.

African elephants


The African elephant’s distribution spans most of the African continent below the Sahara Desert. African elephants currently occur in 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. They are known to have become nationally extinct in Burundi in the 1970s, in The Gambia in 1913, in Mauritania in the 1980s, and in Swaziland in 1920, where they were reintroduced in the 1980s and 1990s. Although large tracts of contiguous elephant range remain in parts of central, eastern and southern Africa, elephant distribution is becoming increasingly fragmented across the continent. By the 1890’s almost all of South Africa’s elephants were exterminated, leaving three or possibly four relic populations within the borders of South Africa.

Since then, elephants in South Africa have undergone a period of sustained growth as a result of the proclamation and fencing of national parks that contained elephants, natural population growth, the establishment of new national parks and provincial nature reserves and their stocking of elephants, and more recently the establishment of small herds in private nature reserves and game ranches. In South Africa elephants occur in all the provinces except the Northern Cape and the Free State. 


Elephants occur in a wide variety of habitats from open grassland to forested regions including open arid savanna or desert, and the contrasting wet areas of marshes and lake shores, from sea level to mountainous regions above the snowlines. Within South Africa elephants occur in most habitat types such as the bushveld regions of the Lowveld and Zululand (KwaZulu-Natal), as well as Eastern Cape thicket habitats extending into the southern Cape forests. Major river systems have been shown to be important for elephant distribution and thus there is some dependence on these linear habitats.

Elephants are not territorial. However, each family or clan may have a specific home range, and these may overlap. Elephants can walk vast distances in search of nutritional forage and water. Home ranges of elephants will vary with the time of year, habitat and climate and can be as small as 15–50 km2, or as large as 500–6 000 km2.

With the erection of fences specifically in South Africa, migratory patterns of elephants have been greatly restricted. But within a home range there is also a pattern to be detected, which is more a seasonal change (i.e. winter to summer; dry to wet season). Apart from food and water availability and distribution, elephants may walk long distances to salt licks in search of special minerals.


Elephants are mega-herbivores. They are generalists that can thus utilise a variety of food resources. Depending on availability, elephants feed on browse and grass. When fresh grass is available this is the preferred diet. Twigs, bark and roots also form part of the diet, especially in the dry season, when no grass is available. In mineral-poor areas, minerals are often supplemented by eating soil and salt. An adult bull will consume 300–400 kg of fresh forage per day, and a cow about 250 kg.

Therefore an elephant consumes about 6–8% of its own body weight daily, but only digests about 30–35 % of what it eats, since fermentation takes place in the hind gut, which is a less efficient system than rumination. This is why dung boluses of elephants are full of plant matter. Elephants require fresh water daily. A trunkful of water amounts to 5–10 litres and an elephant will drink between 100 and 200 litres per day.



The African elephant is a long-lived species with both sexes living to approximately 50–60 years in the wild. Both sexes can reproduce on average to an age of 48–56 years. The number of calves a female will give birth to in her lifetime depends on the age at first calving (range 8.4–15.8 years) and the number of years between calves (range 1.8–13 years). The mean age at first calving tends to be younger for South African populations, with cows having their first calves at an average age of 11 years (median = 11.9; SD = 1.8; n = 8).

Outside of South Africa cows have their first calves at an average age of 14 years (median = 13.5; SD = 3.0; n = 16 estimates). The calving intervals of elephant cows across Africa range from 1.8–13.5 years, but within South Africa elephant cows calve on average every 4.2 years (median = 3.8; SD = 1.8; n = 22) after a gestation period of approximately 22 months. Bulls become sexually mature at 15–18 years under natural conditions, but due to social constraints the majority of matings will be performed by bulls over the age of 35 years.

Family life

Elephants live in a fluid, dynamic society, with males and females moving in separate but overlapping spheres. Females and juveniles live in tight-knit, matriarchal units, while males live a more solitary existence with few social bonds.

The female society is based on complex multi-tier relationships. The core social unit is the family; a co-operative, co-ordinated unit consisting of several related females and their immature offspring. A family can range from 2 to 30 individuals, and the females will remain in their maternal family all their lives. The next tier sees the fusion of several related families into larger bond groups. Most bond groups are formed when family units become too large and split along family lines. The associations between core social groups can persist for decades after the original maternal kin have died. Above this level is the clan, made up of families and bond groups that share the same home-range during the dry season.

The oldest female in the herd is called the matriarch and she is the leader of the family group. The reason why the oldest female is in charge is simple – she has the most knowledge and a lifetime of experience and thus is in the best position to make decisions for the herd especially in times of drought. Within the herd all elephants have a function and all work together for the benefit of the herd. Young females fulfil the role of baby sitters or allomothers. More recently it was also determined that the age of the matriarch may play a role in the position of the herd in the overall hierarchy.

The bulls have a separate but equally complicated social structure. Young bulls will leave their maternal herds at approximately 15 years and join the bull society where older bulls assert strong dominance over these younger bulls. A bull will only be able to successfully compete for females when he is over the age of 35 years. Bulls in musth have a distinct advantage over non-musth bulls when it comes to mating and are also preferred as mating partners by females that are in oestrus. Musth is a period of approximately three months during which the testosterone level of the bull increases significantly. Bulls in musth are more aggressive than non-musth bulls and thus have a competitive edge.

African elephants


Friends and foes

Humans still represent the biggest threat to elephants, through competition for land and resources and our unsustainable demand for ivory that have led to the slaughtering of millions of elephants in the last two hundred years. In nature very few creatures pose a threat to elephants. Lions have been documented to hunt young elephant in places such as the Okavango Delta, but elephants may have an impact on the survival of other species.

Elephants have the ability to create new habitat for certain species, increase food resources for some species and provide water, but can also decrease available habitat for other species. For example elephants push over large trees that serve as nesting sites for some vulture species. This reduces the available nesting sites for vultures but create a micro habitat for some small animals and seedlings.

Smart Strategies

Elephants are highly adaptive creatures. They utilise a wide variety of food sources and can digest highly fibrous material such as the bark of trees. The trunk can be considered the hand of the elephant and are used in feeding, drinking, communication and defence. The tusks are also used for feeding such as digging up roots, breaking twigs and debarking trees, as well as for defence and displaying. Elephants, like humans, can either be left of right handed.

To tell whether an elephant is left or right handed look at which tusk is favoured – it will be shorter and have small notch towards the tip of the tusk. By using their front feet and tusks, elephants have the ability to dig for water in dry riverbeds. Elephants are considered ecosystem engineers. Through the way they utilise their landscape, they have the ability to change it much like humans do. In some cases this can be to the detriment of other more sensitive plant and animal species.

Not only are elephants capable of engaging in effective tool-use, but they have also passed the mirror self-recognition test as have apes and dolphins. Elephants’ brains have a relatively large hippocampus compared to primates, which may explain their long social and chemical memories. Consequently they can keep track spatially of where other individuals are relative to themselves, and it has even been shown that elephants can classify subgroups of humans that pose different degrees of danger.

Humans still represent the biggest threat to elephants and their stress hormone responses to particular human activities (hunting, immobilisation, translocation or tourism) have successfully been quantified. Elephants are known to exhibit concern for deceased individuals or to offer assistance to conspecifics in distress. Research has shown us that elephants show higher levels of interest in elephant skulls and ivory than in other natural objects. We now know that the oldest individuals in a group have enhanced social discrimination and consequently function as important repositories of social knowledge.

Poorer world without me

Elephants are a keystone species, which means that their interactions with other species generate effects that are large relative to their abundance. The African elephant specifically is an ecosystem architect and gardener without parallel. The breaking of trees creates micro-habitats for seedlings and small vertebrates and invertebrates. Dung is a food source for dung beetles and a variety of birds and a dispersal mechanism for many tree species.

Even species such as the Ground Hornbill and the Pearl-spotted Owlet relies on elephants to create nesting sites in hollows of old dead trees. In the dry winter months, elephants dig holes in the dry riverbeds to access water, which is then available to all other water-dependent species. Their big feet create pathways through the thickets for other smaller species to follow and even for us when hiking through the African bush. Through their feeding habits they make browse available for other browsers, maintain structure in savanna by reducing the tree-to-grass ratio and create nutrient-rich micro-climates underneath dead trees. Overall their effect is an increase in biodiversity, from mites to mammals.

The elephant is also an ‘umbrella’ species: These are species that require large areas of suitable habitat to maintain viable populations and whose requirements for persistence are believed to encapsulate those of an array of associated species. Elephants have big home ranges and require large intact areas to maintain their populations. By creating areas in which we protect elephants, we ultimately protect a vast array of other species that share their habitat with elephants.

And lastly elephants are flagship species. These are species that can easily attract public support for conservation and we can piggy back many of our conservation efforts on the back of elephant conservation, especially for those species less likely to attract the public’s eye. Elephants share many attributes with humans such as their consciousness, their extraordinary communication, good memory, similar lifespan, strong sense of family, their ability to plan into the future and their awareness of death. They raise emotions and topics surrounding bioethics and animal rights to a greater degree than any other creature.

People & I

Elephants’ importance to people cannot be judged only on their economic and practical value. They have long been important as symbols on stamps, coat of arms and other decorative devices. They also feature in myths, legend and literature. Artists spanning millennia, from cave painters to Banksy have felt the need to represent elephants, and the elephant is also well represented in the folklore of the forests and plains of tropical Asia and Africa.

Even in western cultures where the elephant is not present, its influence has been felt in folklore and art. In some religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, the elephant plays an important role, for example the elephant-headed Ganesh, the Hindu god of wisdom and the bodhisattvas Chadanta.

Since as early as 2000 BC, elephants have been used as beasts of burden, as means of transport, as war machines and for people’s entertainment in circuses. In modern times elephants are mainly used in the tourism industry. In South Africa elephants are mainly used for viewing as part of photographic safaris, but are also offered for trophy hunts in a well-managed trophy hunting industry. Elephants are considered as part of the Big 5 and can be very dangerous, especially when provoked or stressed.

When viewing elephants in a reserve or national park always remember they have right of way. Always slow down when approaching a herd of elephants and respect their personal space. Never approach herds closer than 30 m and do not try and push your way through a breeding herd.

African elephant herd at a river.

Conservation status and what the future holds

Currently, the major threat to the global elephant population is poaching and the illegal ivory trade. The loss and fragmentation of habitat caused by ongoing human population expansion and rapid land conversion are current and ongoing threats to elephant in Africa. A specific manifestation of this trend is the reported increase in human-elephant conflict, which further aggravates the threat to elephant populations. According to the CITES, IUCN/SSC African Specialist Group, TRAFFIC International (2013) report, the poaching rate of 7.4% in 2012 remains at an unsustainably high level as it exceeds natural population growth rates of usually no more than 5%.

Central Africa consistently shows the highest overall poaching levels, in contrast with southern Africa, which shows the lowest overall levels. Across Central Africa and in parts of East Africa a greater than 60% decline in elephant numbers in the past 10 years has been suggested.

The African elephant has been listed in CITES Appendix I since 1989, but the populations of the following Range States have since been transferred back to Appendix II with specific annotations: Botswana (1997), Namibia (1997), South Africa (2000) and Zimbabwe (1997). These annotations have been recently replaced by a single annotation for all four countries, with certain specific sub-annotations for the populations of Namibia and Zimbabwe.

The African elephant is subject to various degrees of legal protection in all Range States. Although up to 80% of the species’ range is believed to lie in unprotected land, most large populations occur within protected areas. In South Africa elephants are well protected through national and provincial legislation and at present there are no major threats to the elephant population of South Africa. A possible and likely future threat is increased poaching of elephant for the illegal ivory trade. In some cases elephants on small reserves are intensively managed (e.g. through contraception) to control population sizes. The possible long term effects of these measures on elephant social structure and behaviour have not yet been evaluated.

In South Africa elephants are utilised for trophy hunting, photographic tourism and recreation (e.g. captive populations) in accordance with the sustainable use policy environment prescribed by the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act No. 10 of 2004 (NEMBA). Since 2008 elephants have been managed in accordance with the National Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants in South Africa (Government Gazette No. 30833, 29 February 2008). The species is listed as protected in terms of Section 56 of NEMBA and various provincial ordinances and acts provide further legislative protection.


The evolution of the modern day elephant dates back approximately 55 million years to the Eocene Epoch. Two living species remain today, namely the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). At present two subspecies are recognised in the African elephant, namely the forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) and the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana africana). Three Asian elephant subspecies are recognised, namely the Sri Lankan subspecies (Elephas maximus maximus), the mainland subspecies (E. m. indicus) and the Sumatran subspecies (E. m. sumatranus). The only subspecies occurring in South Africa is the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana africana).

The closest living relatives to the elephant are the hyraxes (order Hyracoidea), and sirenians (order Sirenia) such as the manatee and dugong. There is a long complex list of characters that link the Proboscidea, Sirenia and Hyracoidea. One example is the arrangement of the wrist or carpal bones. In most mammals their carpal bones are arranged in a staggered fashion but in the case of the Proboscidea, Sirenia and Hyracoidea the carpal bones are arranged serially. Results from bio-chemical experiments have also unequivocally shown that the closest living relatives to elephant are sirenians, hyraxes and aardvarks.

Scientific classification

Class: Mammalia
Order: Proboscidea
Family: Elephantidae
Genus: Loxodonta
Species: L. africana (Blumenbach 1797)

References and further reading

  • African Elephant Database,
  • Bates, L.A., Sayialel, K., Njiraini, N., Poole, J.H. Moss, C.J. & Byrne, R.W., 2007. Elephants have expectations about the locations of out-of-sight family members. Biological Letters 4: 34–36.
  • Bates, L.A., Poole, J.H. & Byrne, R.W., 2008. Elephant cognition. Current Biology 18: R544-R546.
  • CITES, IUCN, TRAFFIC. 2013. Status of African elephant populations and levels of illegal killing and the illegal trade in ivory. A report to the African Elephant Summit. December 2013. 19pp.
  • Douglas-Hamilton, I., Bhalla, S., Wittemyer, G. & Vollrath, F. 2006. Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 100 (1–2): 87–102.
  • McComb, K., Baker, L. & Moss, C. 2006. African elephants show high levels of interest in the skulls and ivory of their own species. Biology Letters 2(1): 26–28.
  • O’Connell-Rodwell, C.E., Wood, J.D., Kinzley, C., Rodwell, T.C., Poole, J.H. & Puria, S. 2007. Wild African elephants (Loxodonta africana) discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar conspecific seismic alarm calls. Journal of Acoustical Society of America 122: 823–830.
  • Plotnik, J.M., De Waal, F.B.M. & Reiss, D., 2006. Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103: 17053–17057.
  • Shoshani, J. 2000. Elephants: majestic creatures of the wild. Weldon Owen Pty Ltd, USA.
  • Scholes, R.J. & Mennell, K.G. 2008. Elephant management: A scientific assessment for South Africa. Wits University Press, Johannesburg.

Author: Jeanetta Selier
Biodiversity research, information & monitoring, SANBI /SCI-KARB
October 2014

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