African elephant

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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An African elephant photographed at Indianapolis Zoo in Indiana.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the African elephant?

African elephants are the largest land animals on Earth. They are slightly larger than their Asian cousins and can be identified by their larger ears that look somewhat like the continent of Africa. (Asian elephants have smaller, rounded ears.)

African elephants are a keystone species, meaning they play a critical role in their ecosystem. Also known as "ecosystem engineers," elephants shape their habitat in many ways. During the dry season, they use their tusks to dig up dry riverbeds and create watering holes many animals can drink from. Their dung is full of seeds, helping plants spread across the environment—and it makes pretty good habitat for dung beetles too! In the forest, their feasting on trees and shrubs creates pathways for smaller animals to move through, and in the savanna, they uproot trees and eat saplings, which helps keep the landscape open for zebras and other plains animals to thrive.

African elephants are sometimes categorized into savanna elephants and forest elephants. There are some physical and genetic differences, but scientists are still arguing over whether the differences are big enough to call them separate species. Currently, most still consider them same species, Loxodonta africana.

Trunks and tusks

Elephant ears radiate heat to help keep these large animals cool, but sometimes the African heat is too much. Elephants are fond of water and enjoy showering by sucking water into their trunks and spraying it all over themselves. Afterwards, they often spray their skin with a protective coating of dust.

An elephant's trunk is actually a long nose used for smelling, breathing, trumpeting, drinking, and also for grabbing things—especially a potential meal. The trunk alone contains about 40,000 muscles. African elephants have two fingerlike features on the end of their trunk that they can use to grab small items. (Asian elephants have just one.)

Both male and female African elephants have tusks, which are continuously growing teeth. They use these tusks to dig for food and water and strip bark from trees. Males, whose tusks tend to be larger than females’, also use their tusks to battle one another.

Diet

Elephants eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark, and they eat a lot of these things. An adult elephant can consume up to 300 pounds of food in a single day. These hungry animals do not sleep much, and they roam over great distances while foraging for the large quantities of food that they require to sustain their massive bodies.

African elephants range throughout the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa and the rainforests of central and West Africa. The continent’s northernmost elephants are found in Sahel area of Mali. The small, nomadic herd of Mali elephants migrates in a circular route through the desert in search of water.

Because elephants eat so much, they’re increasingly coming into contact with humans. An elephant can destroy an entire season of crops in a single night—a huge blow to a farmer, who may want to retaliate. There are a number of conservation programs working with farmers to help them protect their crops (elephants are so smart that they can learn to get around electric fences quickly!) and provide compensation when an elephant does raid them.

Herds

Elephants are matriarchal, meaning they live in female-led groups. The matriarch is usually the biggest and oldest. She presides over a multi-generational herd that includes other females, called cows, and their young. Adult males, called bulls, tend to roam on their own, sometimes forming smaller, more loosely associated all-male groups.

Having a baby elephant is a serious commitment. Elephants have a longer pregnancy than any other mammal—almost 22 months. Cows usually give birth to one calf every two to four years. At birth, elephants already weigh some 200 pounds and stand about three feet tall.

Threats to survival

Poaching for the ivory trade is the biggest threat to African elephants’ survival. Before the Europeans began colonizing Africa, there may have been as many as 26 million. The arrival of Europeans kicked off the commercial ivory trend, in which tusks were used for piano keys, billiards balls, combs, and all kinds of other items. By the early 20th century, elephant numbers had dropped to 10 million. Hunting continued to increase. By 1970, their numbers were down to 1.3 million.

Between 1970 and 1990, hunting and poaching put the African elephant at risk of extinction, reducing its population by another half. Today, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as vulnerable to extinction. As few as 400,000 remain today.

Because poachers target elephants for their tusks, these years of violence have also had an expecting result: African elephants are evolving to become tuskless. Studies across the continent have shown that regions with historically higher levels of poaching now have higher than usual proportions of tuskless females. Researchers are still trying to figure out how this evolution could affect the species in the long term.

Though the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the global commercial ivory trade in 1989, the illegal tusk trade remains strong, and poaching continues across the continent. In 2016, the Great Elephant Census revealed that savanna elephant numbers were declining at a rate of 8 percent—or 27,000 elephants a year.

Compounding the problem is how long it takes for elephants to reproduce. With reproduction rates hovering around 5 to 6 percent, there are simply not enough calves being born to make up for the losses from poaching.

African elephants are also losing their habitat as the human population grows and people convert land for agriculture and development. Elephants need a lot of room to roam, so habitat destruction and fragmentation not only makes it harder for them to find food, water, and each other, but it also puts them in increased conflict with humans—a dangerous prospect for both.

Conservation

African elephants are protected to varying degrees in all the countries of their geographic range. They’re also protected under international environmental agreements, CITES and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species. There have been recent efforts to bring re-legalize the international trade in ivory, but those so far have failed.

Conservation groups and governments have worked to set aside land for wildlife—including corridors that connect those protected lands. Still, researchers believe that up to 70 percent of elephants' range is on unprotected land.

To curb poaching, stopping the illegal trade is key. Advocates have launched campaigns that address both the supply side (poaching) and the demand side (people who buy ivory). There have been some breakthroughs in recent years, especially on the demand side: In 2015, China—believed to be the world’s biggest illegal and legal ivory market—agreed to a “near-complete” ban on the domestic trade of ivory. Since the ban went into effect, public demand for ivory seems to have fallen.

On the supply side, protecting elephants from poaching also requires a local approach. In 2019, a study showed that the suffering of elephants is tied to that of the humans living nearby: Regions with high levels of poverty and corruption are more likely to have higher poaching rates. This suggests that helping communities develop sustainable livelihoods could reduce the lure of poaching.

Stronger law enforcement and reducing corruption are also important.

Watch: Elephants 101

As the world's largest land mammal, elephants have quite the commanding presence. But did you know elephants can't jump? Or that baby elephants lose their first set of teeth and tusks, just like humans? Learn about both Asian and African elephants and the threats facing these highly intelligent animals today.