African Elephant
(Loxodonta africana)
The African elephant is extremely intelligent, highly adaptable, and exhibits a remarkable degree of social cohesion manifested in very strong and long-lasting social ties. Populations in North Africa were the source of war elephants for the ancient Carthaginians, Romans and Ethiopians, and in many African cultures the elephant is a symbol of strength and power, holding a special place in traditional beliefs. The elephant is also an important “keystone” species, playing a key role throughout the savannah and tropical forest zones it inhabits. It is threatened by habitat loss, illegal hunting for its ivory, and deliberate persecution by the people it comes into conflict with.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Habitat restoration, creation of wildlife corridors, mitigation of human-elephant conflict, further research into population status and movement patterns.
Savannah elephants occur in fragmented populations across eastern, southern and western Africa. Forest elephants are found in the western/central African tropical rainforests.
Media from ARKive
ARKive image - African elephant giving birth
ARKive video - Newborn African elephant calf learning to stand
ARKive image - Newborn African elephant
ARKive video - African elephant infant suckling
ARKive video - African elephant calves suckling and playing
ARKive image - Newborn African elephant
ARKive image - African elephant suckling
ARKive video - Infant and juvenile African elephants playing
ARKive image - African elephant calf suckling
ARKive video - Young African elephants
ARKive video - African elephant calf drinking water
ARKive image - African elephant suckling on sibling's trunk
ARKive image - African elephant calf walking
ARKive video - Female African elephant assisting infant up slope
ARKive video - Juvenile African elephant trying to climb up muddy bank
ARKive image - African elephant calf mud bathing
ARKive video - Juvenile African elephants chase a wildebeest
ARKive image - African elephant calf covered in mud
ARKive video - Juvenile male African elephants play fighting
ARKive image - African elephant calf playing
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Proboscidea
Family: Elephantidae
The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) are the only elephant species remaining from a formerly diverse evolutionary radiation. A third proboscidean species, the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), survived into early historical times. This group is thought to have originated in Africa during the Eocene (50-60 million years ago) and subsequently spread to Europe, Asia, and North and South America. Two main lineages had evolved by the early Pliocene: the Elephantidae, to which the two living species belong, and the extinct mastodons of the families Mastodontidae and Stegodontidae. The African elephant is believed to be the more primitive of the two surviving elephant species. The closest living relatives of the two elephant species are the sea cows (manatees and dugongs), whose ancestors diverged from the Proboscidea during the Palaeocene (50-60 million years ago).
Weight: Unknown
The largest living terrestrial mammal, the African elephant is an impressive sight. The head is huge, the ears are large and fan-shaped, and the limbs are long and columnar. The largest recorded individual weighed a massive 10 tonnes and measured 4 m at the shoulder. Elephants are characterised by their strong, flexible trunks, which are an elongation of the nose and upper lip. The trunk is used extensively for grasping food, as well as for drinking, smelling, touching, vocalising and throwing dust or water over the body. The most striking difference between African and Asian elephants is the size of their ears – those of the African are larger, sometimes reaching nearly 200 cm in length from top to bottom. The two species can also be distinguished by the trunk, which ends in two finger-like processes in the African elephant and a single process in the Asian species. Tusks, which are an elongation of the upper incisors, are present in both sexes of African elephant. These are used for fighting, feeding, digging and marking, grow throughout life, and can reach lengths of 300 cm or more in adult males (females generally have smaller tusks). The skin is generally a dull brownish-grey in colour and sparsely covered with black bristly hairs. The forest elephant is generally smaller and darker, with longer, thinner and straighter tusks than the bush or savannah elephant.
African elephants are active both during the day and at night, although they generally rest during the hottest hours of the day. They require a supply of fresh water and plentiful food, in the form of grass or browse – each elephant may consume 200-300 kg of food and 160 litres of water per day. The diet includes grass, tree foliage, bark twigs, herbs, shrubs, roots and fruit. There is pronounced seasonal variation in the type of food eaten, with grass intake increasing during the rainy season but falling to low levels during the dry season. Diet varies between the two types of elephant, with the forest elephant consuming a higher proportion of fruit and a lower proportion of grass than the savannah elephant.

The availability of food and water are the most important natural factors in determining the distribution of elephants. To find suitable conditions the animals may have to make annual migrations of several hundred kilometres. Often they migrate from a permanent water source at the start of the rainy season and return when the water holes begin to dry up at the beginning of the dry season. Consequently there is considerable variation in reported population densities, 0.26-5.00/km², and in home ranges, 14-3,120 km². Elephants are highly social animals, and sometimes gather in groups of hundreds or even thousands of individuals. There is no evidence of territorial behaviour.

Elephant society is essentially matriarchal, organised around a stable family unit of related females and their offspring. Units usually contain around ten individuals in the savannah elephant; slightly fewer in the forest elephant. Sometimes two or more family units join to form a “kinship group” or “clan”, which can consist of as many as 70 individuals. The clans are led by a large female, the matriarch, whose dominance is undisputed. The matriarch usually maintains her position until death, when she is succeeded by her eldest daughter.

Males are normally driven out of the family group at puberty, which occurs at 8-20 years. After this time they tend to join small temporary all-male groups. Males more than about 25 years old annually enter a condition known as “musth”, an extreme state of arousal in which highly elevated testosterone levels cause aggressive behaviour, pronounced secretions from the temporal gland, and an increase in sexual activity. Musth usually lasts only a few days or weeks, but in males more than 35 years old it can continue for 2-5 months. Males in musth are dominant to other males and can normally defeat them in combat. They join family groups when one or more of the females are in oestrous.

Births may occur at any time of the year, but peak just before the height of the rainy season. A single young, or occasionally twins, is born after a gestation period of about 22 months. Weaning normally takes place after 6-18 months, although the young occasionally nurse for 6 years or more. Although males usually obtain sexual maturity at around 10 years they cannot successfully compete for matings until they are more than 20 years old. Females reach sexual maturity at around 11 years of age and remain fertile until they are 55-60 years old. African elephants are slow breeders, with an interbirth interval of 2.5-9 (usually 5) years. Life expectancy is about 50-70 years.

Elephants play an important role in the ecosystem they inhabit. They modify their habitat by converting areas of forest to grassland, and are important seed dispersers. They can provide water for other species by digging holes in dry riverbeds and the wide paths they create as they wander through the forests act as firebreaks.

Forest elephants live in much smaller family units. They are smaller than bush elephants, with long, thin, straight tusks. Their diet includes a higher proportion of fruit and a lower proportion of grass.
African elephants are found in many different kinds of habitats, including deep forests, open savannahs, wet marshes, thorn bush and semi-desert scrub. They have been recorded from sea level to elevations of more than 5,000 metres.
The savannah elephant occurs in fragmented populations across eastern, southern and west Africa. The forest elephant is found in the tropical rainforest zone of west and central Africa.
Population Estimate
It is very difficult to estimate the total population size. The 2002 African Elephant Database (AED) report cited 402,067 (definite), 59,024 (probable), 99,813 (possible), and 99,307 (speculative) total numbers of elephants.
Population Trend
There were possibly as many as 27 million elephants in Africa in the early nineteenth century. Although populations may at present be stable or increasing in some sub-regions (eastern and southern Africa respectively), the trend is unknown in other regions, and overall there remains insufficient information to venture a current trend at the continental level.
Classified as Vulnerable (VU A2a) on the 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Overexploitation of elephants for their ivory has been a major factor in the massive population declines over the past two hundred years. Hunting of elephants has soared at various times during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, in conjunction with increased demand from India and China following the decline of the Asian elephant, and later from Europe and the USA for the manufacture of billiard balls and piano keys. At the beginning of the twentieth century it is estimated that up to a thousand tonnes of ivory was being exported each year. The 1970s saw another period of large-scale uncontrolled trade, and many populations were devastated, particularly in eastern and central Africa. In Kenya alone, numbers crashed from an estimated 167,000 in 1973 to just 19,000 in 1989. This exploitation also had profound effects on the age and social structure of elephant populations, with adult males and matriarchs being targeted by hunters for their larger tusks. In some areas there are now so few adult males that females may be unable to find a mate. The loss of a matriarch can have a devastating effect on a family unit, who depend on them for leadership. Although hunting has decreased since the ivory ban came into effect in 1990, elephants are still hunted both legally and illegally for their tusks, and this exploitation remains a problem. Habitat loss and fragmentation is now considered a serious threat to surviving elephant populations. Rapid growth of human populations, particularly in west Africa and the fertile east African highlands during the twentieth century, and the extension of agriculture into rangelands and forests have brought humans and elephants into direct conflict. The vast majority of elephants occur outside protected areas, and human-elephant conflicts occur when farming activities take place within this range. Elephants frequently cause widespread damage to agriculture and water supplies, and may injure or even kill local people, who often retaliate by killing the elephants.
Conservation Underway
A sustained campaign against the international ivory trade resulted in the transfer of African elephants and their products to Appendix I of CITES in 1989, effectively ending the legal trade. Considerable debate followed this listing, with several southern African countries arguing that a properly-controlled ivory trade would provide financial incentives for conserving elephants. The populations of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe have since been transferred back to Appendix II. Whether the ban on trade in elephant products should be lifted continues to be one of the most controversial issues in elephant conservation. The IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) has facilitated and participated in the development of a number of continent-wide, national and regional elephant conservation action plans. Conservation strategies for central Africa and west Africa have recently been developed, along with a number of national conservation strategies. The group also maintains the African Elephant Database (AED), which was initiated in 1986 with the objective of developing a comprehensive picture of elephant numbers and distribution throughout Africa. The Human-Elephant Conflict Working Group (HECWG), established in 1997, is currently working to reduce human-elephant conflict by conducting important research, developing mutually beneficial strategies for elephant conservation and improvement of human livelihoods, and by providing technical advice and expertise to range state governments or other conservation support agencies on the management of human-elephant conflict. Three continental-level Conservation Action Plans have been produced by the IUCN over the past three decades, comprising reviews of the distribution and population status of African elephants and recommendations for actions that need to be undertaken at a continental level. The WWF is currently supporting the development of further continent-wide strategies for elephant conservation. The organisation’s AEP (African Elephant Programme) was established in July 2000 with the aim of improving the management of populations, mitigating human-elephant conflict, and controlling illegal trade by training surveillance teams and anti-poaching patrols.
Conservation Proposed
Recommendations made by the various conservation strategies include improving legislation to decrease the illegal killing of elephants and enforcing stricter controls for the trade of elephant products. Legal hunting and trade should be monitored to determine the effect it is having on elephant populations. Existing elephant habitat should be improved by investing in habitat management, rehabilitation and the protection of parks and reserves. The creation of additional wildlife corridors to improve connectivity between isolated populations is also recommended. Although elephants occur in a number of protected areas, up to 80 percent of their range is believed to lie outside protected areas. Efforts to reduce human-elephant conflict are therefore crucial and should continue in order to gain more widespread support for the conservation of this magnificent animal. More information on population status, trends and distribution patterns is needed so that appropriate management strategies can be implemented. The status of the African elephant varies significantly across its range and the long-term survival of national populations is more threatened in some countries than in others. What happens in one country can have a dramatic effect on the population of another. It is therefore important that conservation strategies continue to identify conservation priorities at the regional and continental levels in addition to the national level.
African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG)
A group of technical experts focusing on the conservation and management of African elephants. The broad aim of the AfESG is to promote the long-term conservation of Africa's elephants and, where possible, the recovery of their population to viable levels.

The elephant is one of the WWF flagship species, they have a specific programme for savannah and forest elephant conservation which supports projects that improve the protection and management of elephants, builds capacity within range states, mitigates human-elephant conflict and reduces illegal trade.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
The goal of WCS elephant research is to provide high quality scientific information in order to support elephant management and reduce human-elephant conflict across Africa.

Amboseli Trust for Elephants
Aims to ensure the long-term conservation and welfare of Africa’s elephants in the context of human needs and pressures through scientific research, training, community outreach and public awareness.

Save the Elephants
This foundation aims to secure a future for elephants and to sustain the ecological integrity of the places where they live. It also hopes to reduce human-elephant conflicts through educational awareness.
African Elephant Specialist Group. 2004. Loxodonta africana. In: IUCN 2006. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 07 January 2007.

Central African Elephant Conservation Strategy. (Dec 2005).

Macdonald, F. (ed.). 2001. The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

Nowak, R.M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. Sixth edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Thouless, C. (ed.). 1999. Review of African Elephant Conservation Priorities. A working document of the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group. Second edition.

Strategy for the Conservation of West African Elephants. (March 2005).

Distribution map based on data in African Elephant Database Digital Chart of the World

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