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African Elephant

Scientific Name: Loxodonta africana

East African bush elephant: Loxondonta africana knochenaueri

Photo courtesy of ©Richard W. Rokes.


Elephants are the largest of all land mammals. Males (bulls) weigh 11,000 to 13,200 pounds and reach heights of 9 to 11 feet, while females (cows) weigh 6,600 to 9,000 pounds and reach heights over 8 feet. Their trunks, containing the nostrils, are muscular extensions of the upper lip equipped with two fingerlike projections for handling small objects. Elephants have six sets of cheek teeth, two upper and two lower, which move into place as they outgrow or wear out the previous set. The upper incisors grow continuously, creating the tusks. African elephants have four toes on each of their front feet and three toes on each of their hind feet. Their skin is gray and wrinkled with scattered bristles and sensory hairs. Their ears are large, with a network of veins and capillaries to help dissipate heat, and are, curiously, shaped very much like the continent of Africa.


The African elephant was once found everywhere south of the Sahara where water and trees occurred. However, its range and numbers have declined in the past century, first through uncontrolled ivory hunting, and later accelerating with human population growth. Major declines began in the 1970s and 1980s as demand for ivory made poaching a profitable business.


Adult elephants consume vast amounts of vegetation daily. They can feed from ground level up to 20 feet—higher than a giraffe can reach! Their trunks are capable of coiling around and pulling up grass, picking up items as small as peas, and tearing off tree limbs. Their tusks are used for prying bark loose from trees; they are also used for digging pits and even caves in mineral-rich soil to increase salt intake. Elephants’ rasp-like teeth grind up grasses, reeds, bark and branches.

Elephants prefer to bathe and drink daily, consuming as much as 60 gallons of water, but can abstain for several days during the dry season while traveling between water sources. At Riverbanks, elephants receive about 10 pounds of specially mixed elephant chow plus assorted vegetables, fruits; and 2-3 bales of coastal grass hay per day.


Elephants feed up to 16 hours a day, and they sleep four to five hours, usually standing. A herd of elephants typically includes 9 to 11 animals. It is a matriarchal society, consisting of a mother with her dependent offspring and her grown daughters with their offspring. Adult males live separately, either alone or in bachelor herds.

Breeding is not strictly seasonal, with first breeding around 10 years of age; mature males of 25 or older have a better chance of mating. Gestation is 22 months, with intervals between calves averaging 4 to 9 years. Newborn elephants weigh about 265 pounds and remain in constant touch with the mother for the first year. Closely related females will cross suckle each other’s calves, and the bond between mother and daughter can last up to 50 years.

Not surprisingly, elephants cannot leave the ground (jump). The normal walking rate is 3mph to 5mph, but they are able to reach speeds of 25mph when fleeing or charging. Elephants can climb up steep slopes, sit up like begging dogs, and stand semi-erect to reach food. No land animals are safer from predators than elephants. Lions and hyenas occasionally take a baby elephant but are rarely given the opportunity due to group defense and protectiveness of the herd. Human poachers are the elephants’ biggest predatory threat.

Status in the Wild

There are approximately between 470,000 and 690,000 African elephants in the wild. Illegal poaching and habitat disruption are threatening the elephant everywhere it occurs outside of parks and reserves, and even within these protected areas, poaching is difficult to control. The African elephant is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN and is listed on Appendix I of CITES. There are about 400 elephants in zoos, circuses and private facilities in North America.