Everything you need to know about African elephants

The largest living land mammal on Earth, from talented trunks to the ivory trade
By Jane Wynyard from Save The Elephants

What Is It?

The largest living land mammal on Earth, famous for packing a mighty trunk


Male African elephants (bulls) can grow to be significantly larger than female elephants (cows) – up to four metres in height and weighing up to seven tonnes. Cows grow to around 2.7 – 3.9 metres and weigh between 2.7 and 3.6 tonnes.

Photo by Graeme Green


The African elephant is extremely long-lived, sometimes surviving up to 60 to 70 years in the wild. Male elephants often live longer, even to 90 years old, but end up dying of starvation because by this age  their teeth have worn out. 

Where Do They Live?

African elephant populations are found across the continent. Their numbers are high in much of Southern Africa, with Botswana holding the largest population, and much of the smaller populations in West Africa.

Photo by Frank AF Petersens / Save the Elephants


Elephants are a keystone species and crucial to Africa’s forests and savannahs. African elephants live in sub-Saharan Africa, the rain forests of Central and West Africa and the Sahel desert in Mali. They have evolved to survive well in hot, arid conditions and forest habitats. 

Photo by Robbie Labanowski / Save the Elephants


Elephants are herbivores, meaning they eat leaves, roots, fruits and grasses. Elephants can feed up to 16 hours a day and drink up to 210 litres a day. Their daily food intake is almost as much as 47 per cent of their body weight. 


Elephants have a gestation period of 22 months and typically have one calf at a time, although twins do sometimes occur. In their lifetime, a female elephant can give birth to as many as 12 calves. Their survival rate depends on various factors, including the death of their mothers and whether they’re absorbed into the herd, natural causes, or attacks from predators. Research by Save the Elephants recently revealed that bull elephants increase the energy they put into reproduction as they get older , suggesting that male elephants are capitalizing on their increase in size by spending more effort searching for females as they get older.


A typical day in the life of an elephant includes spending a huge chunk of time eating and drinking, roaming in search of food and water sources, with occasional breaks to play and an average of 2-3 hours of sleep a day. Sometimes, depending on the seasons in the year, elephants tend to migrate in search of mates, food and water.

Photo by Graeme Green


An elephant’s trunk is one of the most versatile organs in the animal kingdom. It allows them to pick up small bits of food from the ground and also to reach 20 feet up into a tree, making them adaptable to different environments. It can suck up water and be used to transfer water to the mouth. It can be used for affection or for giving other elephants a mighty thump. It’s very sensitive to smells and can sense the direction of an odour.

The difference between African and Asian elephants

African elephants have much larger ears than Asian elephants and different head shapes. The Asian elephant has a twin-domed head compared with an African elephant whose head is much rounder in shape. Both male and female African elephants can have tusks. However, only male Asian elephants can grow them. African elephants are also usually much bigger in size than Asian elephants.

Photo by Graeme Green

5 Incredible Facts

Elephants are ‘ecosystem engineers’. They strip bark off trees, pull other trees down, and plant more trees through their dung, slowly turning woodland into savannah. Elephants can deposit upwards of 150 kg of dung daily.

Elephants live in tight-knit family groups headed by a female leader called a matriarch. They are known to develop strong and intimate bonds between friends and family members. When elephants experience poaching in the family, younger daughters step in to take the place of fallen matriarchs and employ ingenious strategies to survive and pull their families through the toughest times.

Elephants mourn their dead, and not just among relations as other animals do. Even unrelated families pay homage to other elephants they once knew. A new study highlighted patterns in elephants’ behaviour toward deceased individuals. 

Photo by Graeme Green

Elephants love water and it’s not uncommon to see them swimming or playing in the river and/or mud puddles like excited little children.  They are excellent, natural-born swimmers, moving all four legs in the water and using their trunks as snorkels.  Their enormous bodies act as natural floatation devices.

Elephants are afraid of swarming bees, as their trunks and ears are vulnerable, not to mention baby elephants with their thin skin. This fact, discovered by Save the Elephants and developed by the Elephants and Bees Project, has been used to protect smallholder farms by stringing beehive fences around them: a win-win solution that keeps elephants out of farms, and provides extra income for farmers through honey.

Photo by Frank AF Petersens / Save the Elephants

How Many Elephants Are On The Planet Today?

Elephant numbers have been on the decline in the last ten years. Save the Elephants’ research estimates that 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory during the poaching crisis between 2009 and 2012.

The African Elephant is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with only around 415 000 remaining left in the continent in areas that have been surveyed. There are also believed to be another possible 117,000 to 135,000 in unsurveyed areas.

Tens of thousands of elephants are still killed every year for their ivory. Forest elephants remain under heavy pressure from poachers, with dense forests making law enforcement tough, even where the will and capacity exists.

Gabon holds half of the world’s remaining forest elephants but with the spread of poaching in this area, elephants here are under real threat of eradication.

The Greatest Threats To Elephants…

The Ivory Trade: Demand for ivory remains the main cause of elephant poaching. Across Africa, elephants are still being killed at an unsustainable rate for their tusks, with large amounts of illegal ivory moving across Africa and into Asia. China’s leadership choosing to close their ivory market was a huge step towards ending the elephant crisis. But declaring an end to the legal trade was always going to be only the first step. There is still too much demand and the price of ivory is still too high. Despite China’s decision to close its markets, we’re also seeing increased illegal ivory activity along the country’s southern border, particularly in Laos and Myanmar. 

Photo by Kristian Schimidt / Save the Elephants

Habitat Loss: Elephants are increasingly being crowded out of their habitats. Humans are encroaching on these lands for farming and infrastructural development, which leaves elephants with small patches of disconnected land. Without corridors to link these islands of habitat, herds can have trouble reaching food and water at certain times of year. They may also be separated from other elephant groups, decreasing their breeding opportunities.

Human-Elephant Conflict: With elephants competing for space and resources in some areas, they are susceptible to human-elephant conflict as their paths often cross with herders and their livestock.

When farms are established where elephants are used to roaming, they become a target for crop-raiding by hungry elephants. A year’s crop can be wiped out in a single night, creating understandable resentment. Both farmers and elephants can be wounded or killed in the conflict that ensues. Pressure from livestock grazing in elephant rangeland is also mounting, impacting the amount of food available for elephants.

Photo by Lisa Hoffner / Save The Elephants

What Can People Do To Help?

People can help protect elephants and create awareness of their plight by uniting to spread the word. The more people are aware of the challenges facing elephants, the more likely they are to take action to help.

Don’t buy ivory products, as that fuels the demand for ivory, which consequently leads to the slaughter of elephant populations. Buying tusks or jewellery, chess sets or other ivory products drives the trade, and helps push elephants towards extinction. You also risk imprisonment if found with ivory in some countries.

Donations play a major role in helping protect elephants. Through funding and grants, we are able to carry out important conservation work geared towards securing a future for elephants.

Save the Elephants:

Follow Save the Elephants on Instagram at: @savetheelephants.

Photos by Save The Elephants.

Additional photos, including top, by Graeme Green:

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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