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Elephants are smart, emotional, self-aware and highly social creatures.
As well as being the largest land mammal on earth, elephants are a keystone species and play an important role in the environment where they live. However, having roamed the wild for 15 million years, today, this iconic species faces the biggest threats to its survival due to ivory poaching, human-wildlife conflict and habitat destruction.
Name: African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
Age: Elephants can live to the age of 70
Population Estimate: 400,000 - 415,000
Conservation Status: Vulnerable
Countries where African Elephants live: Angola; Benin; Botswana; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Central African Republic; Chad; The Democratic Republic of the Congo; Ivory Coast; Equatorial Guinea; Eritrea; Ethiopia; Gabon; Ghana; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Kenya; Liberia; Malawi; Mali; Mozambique; Namibia; Niger; Nigeria; Rwanda; Senegal; Sierra Leone; Somalia; South Africa; South Sudan; Tanzania; Togo; Uganda; Zambia; Zimbabwe
Elephants are smart, emotional, self-aware and highly social creatures
The ears of an African Elephants can reach up to 5 feet long. When flapped, they act as big fans, cooling the blood that runs close to the surface behind their ears.
Elephants are herbivores (vegetarians), eating a diet of grass, fruit, leaves, twigs, and tree bark.
Elephants are known for their incredible memory. Matriarchs will remember the trails and watering holes and how to navigate the seasons, all knowledge handed down by their ancestors for generations, and knowledge so vital for their survival.
Elephants will walk at the pace of their slowest member, with infants surrounded by nurturing members of the herd, and their young babies are always protected from the elements, like the wind, the rain and the sun.
Elephants live in herds, which are highly organized social groups of 6-20 elephants led and guided by an older female leader, called a matriarch. As the leader of the herd, a matriarch will make all the decisions for the herd - including what to eat, where to sleep and where to go. Female elephants stay with the herd for their entire lives meaning a matriarch acts as a grandmother and/or mother to most of the herd members that include several generations of female relatives (aunts, sisters and cousins). Males (called bull elephants) will only stay with their family until adolescence (around 14 years old) when they venture out on their own and spend most of their lives alone or with other bulls.
As well as being the largest land mammal, elephants have the longest gestation period of all animals at 22 months. After the birth, a calf will stay very close to its mother for the first few years, who will nurse her calf for around 4 years. During this time, infant elephants are milk dependent and cannot live more than a few weeks without milk, although they do start to eat vegetation at just a few months of age. The progression of elephants’ mirrors the development of humans and as elephants are extremely tactile, calves need to be touched every few seconds for reassurance, and often suck on their trunks for comfort, just like babies suck their thumbs.
Elephants communicate with a range of vocalizations, from low-frequency rumbles, known as infrasound, which humans can’t hear, to higher-pitched screams and trumpets. Other elephants can hear these vocalizations as much as six miles away. This allows them to keep in touch when apart and also enables them to recognise if an elephant is a friend. If not, they gather together for protection.
Elephants have around 40,000 muscles in their trunks. An elephant’s trunk acts as its mouth, nose and hands all in one. It is used for breathing, smelling, picking up objects, touching and hugging. It is a very powerful yet delicate instrument, strong enough to break a branch from a tree and yet delicate enough to be able to pick up a blade of grass. To drink, an elephant sucks water into its trunk like a hose and blows it into its mouth. The trunk also lifts food into its mouth. Elephants are great swimmers and can use their trunks like snorkels!
Tusks are the only two front teeth of an elephant and grow throughout an elephant’s lifetime. Used to dig and find food, to play and fight, tusks are important tools although some elephants are born without one or both. Made of ivory, which has long been coveted by certain cultures, elephants have sadly been poached (killed) for their tusks.
In recent years, many people have asked if tusked can be dyed/painted to help protect elephants. However, practically speaking, as with our own teeth, ivory (or dentine) is a very hard substance so, in the case of dying the tusks, it would be incredibly difficult to ensure that the colour permeates the surface. Without this, the dye on the outer surface could be buffed or sanded away, thereby not acting as a deterrent.
Added to this, anesthetising an elephant can be a dangerous procedure for the animal and as tusks grow at approximately 2cm per year, meaning that this process of staining the tusks would have to be repeated many times throughout an elephant’s life. Instead, we believe that changing human behaviour (not modifying elephants) is the only long term solution and work through Anti-Poaching and awareness campaigns to help put an end to ivory poaching.
Elephants are sensitive and complex social animals who seek the companionship of other elephants, preferably their own families. With a life span of 70-80 years, elephants will grieve and mourn when a herd member dies and elephants have been observed visiting the bones of deceased herd members and touching these with their trunks.
With females remaining with their herd for their entire lives and bulls forming ‘bachelor herds’ made up of other males, it is clear that elephants form close bonds of friendship. They have even been known to care for an orphaned elephant even if the infant is not related to the herd, although if a mother is already nursing her own calf, the chance of this reduces.
Elephants are a key stone species, which means without them, entire ecosystems would look dramatically different or cease to exist. In the case of an elephant, their dietary habits and movements help control an ecosystem and create new habitats other animals including antelopes, zebra and wildebeest, as well as smaller animals and insects.
For instance, elephants can travel over 80km a day and when it rains, their large footprints act as water collectors and serve as water sources for smaller animals. Elephants also pull up grass and bushes when they eat, making room for new plants to grow whilst they also spread plant seeds to new areas through their droppings (dung).
Find out how the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is helping Kenya’s elephants
More than 200 orphaned elephants rescued with the aim of a wild release