African Elephant

  • SCIENTIFIC NAME: Loxodonta africana

  • SWAHILI NAME: Tembo; Ndovu

As the world’s largest land mammal, elephants are incredibly powerful creatures, capable of completely altering environments by uprooting bushes and tearing down entire trees. Despite their strength, elephants are very dexterous. Using the nearly 100,000 muscles in its trunk, an elephant can use the tip of it to pick a single leaf off a branch.

African Elephant

African Elephant



Daily Rhythm




Life span

In the wild: 54 years (average for female); 39 years (average for male); 65 years (maximum for female); 60 years (maximum for male)
In captivity: 41 years (female); 24 years (male)

Conservation Status



Male: 13,335 lb (6,048 kg) maximum
Female: 7,125 lb (3,232 kg) maximum


Male/female: 7.6 to 8.3 ft (25 to 37 m) high at shoulder

African Elephant

Tracks and Scat

Tracks: Flat with prominent cracks and wrinkles; hind track longer and narrower than front track; hind feet often scuff along the ground.
Scat: Large, barrel-shaped; initially bright green or yellow, darkens for a day and then lightens; stressed elephants make runny scat.

African Elephant tracks

Trivia Question

How many sets of teeth does an elephant have throughout its life?


An elephant goes through six sets of teeth throughout its lifetime! As teeth wear out, they fall out and are replaced by larger ones. Teeth in the final set can be eight inches (20.3 cm) long!

Social Structure

The social structure of elephants is based upon one central unit: the family. An elephant family is led by a matriarch, the eldest female in the group. The family can vary in size from 2 individuals to 45 or more and can bridge 4 generations of related elephants. Families are composed of adult females, calves, and juveniles; male elephants leave their birth family at the age of 14 to join other bulls or remain on their own. Elephant social networks are uniquely large: Families congregate in groups that can accumulate thousands of individuals. Elephant society is also very fluid. Groups change often, based on social bonds, reproductive states, or seasons.


Communication plays a central role in maintaining the intricate social network of elephants. Elephants communicate using visual and tactile displays, chemical signals such as saliva, and vocalizations. By positioning their trunks, ears, limbs, or entire bodies in particular ways, elephants are able to transmit complex emotions and messages, ranging from threatening a subordinate to displaying submissive behavior. Elephants also interact by utilizing a wide range of sounds—everything from rumbling and trumpeting to barking and roaring. Scent is used to distinguish between particular individuals, both elephant and human!


Elephants are active for 18 to 24 hours a day. While they spend the majority of this time foraging for food, they also enjoy a variety of other activities, such as water bathing, mud wallowing, and dust bathing. During the day, elephants rest while standing; at night, they lie down for a few hours to sleep.


Between 1960 and 1990, elephant populations in East Africa suffered a huge decline, as 85 to 98 percent of elephants were killed for their ivory. Despite these decimations, Tanzania and Kenya maintain a significant elephant presence. Today, there are an estimated 25,000 elephants in Kenya, though poaching continues to threaten this number.

Range & Habitat

Savanna elephant populations are fragmented into localities north of the Sahel and south of the Sahara. These elephants currently inhabit an area only 20 percent the size of their historic range, which once included nearly all of Africa.

From swamps and forests to savannas and woodlands, elephants make their homes in a wide range of habitats. Elephants can thrive in such diverse environments because they are unspecialized herbivores, or mixed feeders, meaning that they can feed successfully on multiple types of grass, shrubbery, plants, and trees.


As mixed feeders, elephants alternate between feeding on grass and feeding on trees, depending on the season and availability of food. They particularly enjoy munching on bark, especially that of acacia trees. Elephants have a digestive system that doesn’t break down all of the food they take in. (More than half of what they eat comes out the other end undigested!) To make up for these lost nutrients and because of their large size, elephants spend 60 percent of their day eating, consuming about one to two percent of their body mass daily. An adult elephant can eat as much as 300 pounds a day. In addition, elephants are incredibly dependent on water and must drink 42 gallons (160 l) of water every day.


Elephants mate when a male is in musth and a female is in estrous, which occurs every 4.5 years. Musth is a period of heightened aggression and sexual activity in males, usually experienced by the time they are 30 years old. Females greatly prefer older males, so younger male elephants have few opportunities to mate. During mating, a female elephant will emit a call that is joined by the rumbling and trumpeting of her family and other nearby individuals. This phenomenon is called the mating pandemonium. After an extraordinary 660 days, a female gives birth, usually at night in the company of her family. The moment of birth is a significant moment, and the family erupts in momentous trumpeting for up to 40 minutes.

Friends & Foes

Young elephants display an unusual fascination with other species. Calves and juveniles enjoy playfully chasing birds, monkeys, and even larger mammals such as warthogs and hyenas. As elephants grow older, however, this lighthearted interest turns to aggression. Adults act very competitively with other species, expelling them from watering holes or chasing them away from their families. Indeed, elephants are one of the only species of herbivores that purposely kill other species. They do this by stepping on small mammals that have startled them or by goring humans or livestock.

Population in Kenya & Beyond

Southern Africa is home to the largest number of savanna elephants—an estimated 321,000, which is nearly twice the number found in East Africa. Within East Africa, elephants span an area of more than 340 square miles (880,000 km2).

African Elephant

Did you know?

Elephants have a pouch at the base of their tongue that can store 1.2 gallons (4.5 l) of water.