KINGDOM: Animalia (Animals)
PHYLUM: Chordata (Possessing a notochord)
CLASS: Mammalia (Mammals)
ORDER: Proboscidea (Trunked mammals)
FAMILY: Elephantidae (Elephants and Mammoths)
GENUS: Loxodonta (African Elephants)
SPECIES: Loxodonta africana (African Savannah Elephant)
The African savannah elephant is mainly found in central and southern Africa in nomadic herds that wander the plains and grasslands of Africa grazing for food and searching for waterholes.
African elephants are the largest and heaviest land mammals on earth. The skin is dark grey and mostly hairless and can be up to 4cm thick. The African savannah elephant’s head is shaped like a dome, with very large ears (their distinctive feature), a long prehensile trunk and two tusks protruding next to their mouths. The back is concave and the belly slopes down from the front to the rear legs. The feet are are flattened and there are four toenails on each front foot and three to four toenails on each rear foot. Bulls are about 3.75m tall at the shoulder, whilst females usually measure about 3m heigh. African savannah elephants weigh around 4-7 tons.
These elephants prefer deserts, forests, savannas, river valleys and marshes. They can survive long periods of time without water, and therefore their habitats vary.
African savannah elephants are herbivores (plant-eaters). The bulk of their diet is comprised of leaves and branches stripped from trees and bushes by using their trunk. They will also eat fruit and grasses, as well as roots (dug for with their tusks) and tree bark (stripped from trees with their tusks).
African savannah elephants are highly social animals. They live in female dominated herds that can reach up to 200 individuals. A clan of about 10 elephants is led by the oldest female, who is the matriarch. Adult males are solitary, and thus these clans consist only of closesly related females and their offspring. The matriarch will lead the herd to water sources, and determines when they eat, drink or bath.
Elephants are polygynous (males will have more than one female mate at a time). After a 22 month gestation period, a single calf is born. Twins are rare. Calves are weaned at 2-3 years when males will start being larger than females. Young females in the herd will act as allmothers and will protect calves and retrieve straying infants. Females will also suckle each other’s calves. Calves become independent only at about 6 years of age, when their tusks begin to show. Sexual maturity is reached at about 10-12 years, at which time males will typically leave their natal herd. Females will stay and may eventually become the matriarch of the herd. African savannah elephants can live up to 70 years.
Because of their size, the African savannah elephant doesn’t have many predators. Calves may be susceptible to hyenas and lions.
Poaching is a huge threat to the African savannah elephant. These elephants are hunted for their tusks that are made of ivory, which is very valuable. Another threat is the loss and fragmentation of habitat caused by on-going human population expansion and rapid land conversion. A specific manifestation of this trend is the reported increase in human-elephant conflict, which further aggravates the threat to elephant populations.
Did you know?
- Even though their skins are very thick (2-4 cm) they are very sensitive and can even feel raindrops
- What looks like the elephant’s ‘knees’, are in fact their wrists
- Elephants can eat up to 270kg of food per day!
- Elephants have no sweat gland and elephants do not cry
- As the elephant grows, so does their vocabulary