The African savanna elephant is the world’s largest land animal. They are larger than the other African elephant species, the African forest elephant. They weigh between 4 and 7 tonnes (4.4-7.7tons). Males are larger than females.
They are larger than their relative the Asian elephant. A range of differences differentiate the two species. African elephants have larger ears and both the male and female have tusks. African elephants have a two finger-like growths (called a process) one on the top side of the trunk and the other on the bottom while Asian elephants only have one on the top.
One of the most iconic features of the elephant is the trunk which is an elongated upper lip and nose. It can act as a fifth limb to help grab food, lift items and spray water or dirt. This tongue includes 40,000 muscles to provide precision in its movements.
African savanna elephants can be distinguished from African forest elephants as they are larger, have lighter skin and more rounded ears.
Both males and females have tusks which are the incisors. The males are larger than the females. Their large tusks are white and formed from ivory. In African savanna elephants these are forward and curved while in the forest elephant they point downward.
An African savanna elephant will measure between 4 and 5m (13-16ft) long. At the shoulder they stand 2.5-4m (8.2-13ft) tall.
At the end of the body is a tail which measures 1-1.5m (3.25-5ft) long. It ends with a small tuft of fur.
Wild 8-9 years
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The African savanna elephant is a herbivore. Their diet includes a range of bark, roots, branches, grass and leaves.
Their tusks are used to loosen fragments of soil which are rich in soil. These are consumed to supplement the salt in their diet.
Water is consumed by sucking it up using the trunk and then squirting it in to their trunk. They require around 189 litres (50 gallons) of water each day to remain hydrated.
Each elephant may consume as much as 160kg (350lbs) of food each day.
Africa is the native home of the African savanna elephant. Here they can be found throughout Central, Southern and West Africa. Their range extends south to South Africa, east to Ethiopia and west to Guinea-Bissau.
The population in Swaziland went extinct but re-introductions have seen this population reestablished. Former populations in Burundi, Gambia and Mauritania are now considered extinct.
They make their home in savannas as the name suggests though they can be found in most African habitats which have adequate food and water to support them. These may include rainforest, woodland, scrub or desert. Some have been spotted on beaches.
Due to their large food requirements and their ability to remove whole trees from the ground the African savanna elephant can cause dramatic changes to their environment. Some areas will move between closed savanna and open woodland based on whether or not elephants currently inhabit the area. This is especially evident during drought.
Breeding can take place year round in the African savanna elephant herd.
Females have a 13-16 week estrus cycle. Ovulation lasts for four days.
Males experience a period called musth which typically lasts 6-12 weeks and the timing of this will vary between individuals. During this period they produce a secretion from their temporal glands which swells. They will frequently call at this time. During this period they join female herds to mate.
Females are most attracted to the largest, most mature males with males that have larger tusks having higher reproductive success.
Their gestation is the longest of any mammal on Earth and lasts for 22 months. On most occasions a single calf is born though twins do occur. At birth the calf weighs 90-120kg (198-265lbs). Females will leave their herd to give birth.
For the first four months of their life the calf is dependent on the mother’s milk as their only food source. After this they begin to eat solid food but will continue to drink milk until 3 years old.
They will remain with their mother to learn how to behave and what to eat and drink for the first 8 years of their life.
Sexual maturity is reached at 11 years old for females and 20 years old for males.
The position of the matriarch is transferred through birth and the offspring of a matriarch will become the herds next leader.
A female gives birth once every 3-9 years.
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African savanna elephants form a herd which is led by the oldest female who is known as the matriarch. These herds contain the females and their offspring. Males are normally solitary and will only join the herd to breed. On occasion they may form a small herd of 3-4 members. An average herd includes 10 females and their offspring.
If a member of the herd becomes ill they will care for them and when a member passes away they will grieve them.
They are highly vocal animals. They will communicate with group members using high pitched squeaks and ‘infrasound’ rumbles. Each rumble can travel up to 3km (2miles) through air and triple this distance in the ground.
Due to their large food requirement the African elephant is active for much of the day. They only sleep for around 4 hours per day.
To protect their skin the African elephant will take a dust bath. They will suck up dust with the trunk and below this on to the back where it acts in a similar method to sunscreen.
African savanna elephants are proficient swimmers and can stay afloat for up to 2 years.
A number of bird species have symbiotic relationships with the African savanna elephant where they will eat parasites which attach to their skin.
Predators and Threats
Most predators of the African savanna elephant will target young animals as older animals are too large and can protect themselves using the tusks. Predators which may target them include African lions, African wild dogs, spotted hyena and Nile crocodiles.
Humans affect the population of African savanna elephants through habitat destruction and fragmentation. Poaching is also a major threat mainly to collect the ivory in their tusks.
Ivory poaching has become such a problem that in parts of their range they are evolving to not have tusks. Further study will be required as to what effect this has on their survival.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in Africa there may have been as many as 26 million elephants but by 1970 their numbers had dropped to 1.3 million.
Elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror. This trait is rare among animals.
The elephant has the largest brain of any land animal. It is roughly four times the size of a humans.
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