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African Elephant Facts

The elephant is the largest living land mammal measuring up to 9m long (trunk to tail), 4m high at the shoulder and weighing in at up to 6 tonnes.

How are elephants classified?

Both animals and plants can be organised into different groups based on their physical and genetic characteristics. Species that are alike are grouped together. This is called classification/taxonomy.

This is how elephants are classified:
Class:                     Mammals
Order:                   Proboscidea
Family:                  Elephantidae 
Species:               Loxodonta africana (African savannah)

                                Loxodonta cyclotis (African forest)

IUCN1 taxonomic notes “Preliminary genetic evidence suggests that there may be at least two species of African elephants, namely the Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). A third species, the West African Elephant, has also been postulated”.

Distribution and population decline

There are between 434,000 and 684,000, although some believe that it could be as low as 420,000. Elephants live in 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Drastic population decline and range contraction has been seen in recent years and elephants are now locally extinct in many parts of their former range, including Burundi in the 1970s and Mauritania in the 1980s. Their current range includes most of southern and eastern Africa as well as a patchy distribution as far west as Senegal.

Habitat degradation and destruction, increasing human population and changing land uses are fragmenting the available habitat through which elephants can migrate, leaving some smaller populations isolated and at risk, for example those at the fringe of their range. These populations usually do not have the genetic diversity to survive in the long term without the ability to mix with other herds in the region.

Currently African elephants can be found in: Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone*, Somalia, South Africa, Republic of South Sudan, Republic of the Sudan, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

*It is feared that elephants might have disappeared from Sierra Leone in the last few years.


Elephants need a large home range to find enough food and water to thrive, and will follow elephant paths to migrate from one area to another.  African savannah elephants live on open plains, while forest elephants inhabit forests.


Elephants are herbivores and as such need over 150kg of food each day to maintain their health and vitality, requiring them to feed for up to 75% of their time. As herbivores their diet is varied, consisting of grass, leaves, twigs, buds, fruit and even roots and bark. Elephants act as ecosystem engineers, dispersing undigested plant seeds through their dung, and thus their foraging habits can drastically alter the landscape (Watch Ian Redmond, OBE, as he talks about the importance of the 'gardeners of the forest' in his 2014 TEDx talk).


Elephants have a number of distinctive physical characteristics, the first being their versatile trunk, perfectly adapted to picking up food, touching and greeting other elephants, drawing up water, breathing and producing sound. Secondly they have large ears which they flap to keep cool and use to display aggression. Strong molar teeth allow them to grind up food; and rumbling calls – too low for human ears – allow long distance communication. Finally adult elephants, males and females alike, have two ivory tusks which allow them to peel bark off trees and ‘mine’ for minerals (such as the Mt Elgon elephants).

Ecology and Behaviour 

Elephants live in family groups called herds which, presided over by a matriarch (dominant female), can consist of hundreds of individuals with home ranges of up to 1,800km2.

Elephants are a keystone species and help maintain their ecosystem.  They create vital pathways and knock over trees allowing smaller species to feed.  In droughts they dig down to underground water supplies.

The matriarch, using information passed on by her mother, guides and protects the family, which consists of her sisters, daughters, female cousins and calves.  The matriarch’s knowledge of the home range and traditional water sources is vital to the herds’ survival.

Elephants have a 70 year life span and reach maturity at around 12 years old.  Bull elephants live outside the family herd, either alone or in small groups of two or three, and mating takes place after courtship.  Pregnancy lasts 22 months and at birth the mother is often helped by an experienced female.  The 100kg new-born calf relies on its mother’s milk for up to four years and is watched over by the entire herd.


Described as the ‘world’s most charismatic mega-herbivore’, elephants face a number of serious threats, including illegal killing for the ivory trade, along with conflict with humans due to habitat destruction for agriculture and through human population expansion.

¹International Union for Conservation of Nature
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