All About African Elephants: Gentle Giants of the Savannah

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

NameAfrican ElephantDietHerbivorous
Scientific nameLoxodonta cyclotis (African forest elephant)
Loxodonta africana (African bush elephant)
Weight1,995 to 9,071 kg (4,400 to 20,000 lbs)
Pronunciationa-fri-kahn eh-luh-funtHeight2.4 to 3.96 m (~8 to 13 ft)
ClassificationProboscidea,‭ Elephantidae,‭ & LoxodontaLocationAfrica

The African Elephants

african elephants
African Elephant | Kenneth Canning via Getty Images

With enough evidence to support the title, elephants are some of the Earth’s most fascinating creatures. 

One of their most distinctive qualities is their size, earning them the title of the largest living land animals. 

Their size is no surprise; they belong to the same family as mammoths and mastodons, some of the most impressive land animals ever. 

While modern-day elephants are not as grand, they still possess some of the features of these prehistoric giants- a long trunk, tusks, pillar-like legs, large ear flaps, and tough gray skin. 

The Earth has changed so much since the existence of mammoths and mastodons; as such, modern elephants do not occupy all the same regions as these prehistoric creatures. 

These gentle giants face threats of habitat loss due to human encroachment, poaching for ivory and other body parts, etc.

african elephants
What a tusk! | Wirestock via Getty Images

Because of these threats, only two broad living species of the modern elephant are left in the world: the African elephant (the African bush and the African forest elephant) and the Asian elephant. 

While both species are very similar, they each have distinct features that make it easy to tell them apart. 

However, this article is a guide into the world of African elephants, delving into their biology, behavior, and challenges in the modern era. 

As we embark on this journey, we’ll celebrate the grandeur of these remarkable creatures and confront the challenges that jeopardize their future. 

The story of African elephants is one of resilience, interconnectedness, and the enduring struggle for survival in a rapidly changing world. 

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Taxonomy and Classification

african elephants
Close-up of an African elephant | Ivan Veselkov via Getty Images

African elephants belong to the family Elephantidae and the order Proboscidea. 

Within the family Elephantidae, there are three recognized species: the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), and the extinct woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). 

African forest elephants are systematically categorized within the animal kingdom (Animalia) and specifically belong to the phylum Chordata, a classification for organisms featuring a notochord during their development. 

They further fall under the class Mammalia, signifying their status as mammals. 

They fall under the order Proboscidea, which includes elephants and their close relatives and are classified under the family Elephantidae, which unites all elephant species. 

african elephants
Large herd of African elephants | adogslifephoto via Getty Images

Their taxonomic home is the genus Loxodonta, where they are recognized as the species Cyclotis

Like their counterpart, African bush elephants, scientifically classified as Loxodonta africana, are members of the kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, and order Proboscidea, which encompasses all elephant species. 

Within the family Elephantidae, they belong to the Loxodonta genus, a distinct group of elephants characterized by their large size and distinctive features. 

African bush elephants are a single species known as Loxodonta africana, with unique geographical distribution and subtle variations in physical characteristics.

Physical Characteristics

african elephants
African Forest Elephant | USO via Getty Images

Generally, African elephants appear the same at first glance, but like every other animal group with different species, there are some differences between the African forest and bush elephants. 

Firstly, the African forest elephant is the smallest living elephant species. 

Because of the sexual dimorphism of this species, males stand between 7-10 feet at the shoulder and weigh as much as 8,000 to over 15,000 pounds, while females only reach 5-7 feet and only weigh between 4,400 and 8,800 pounds. 

One of the most distinguishing features of African forest elephants is their dark gray skin. 

This dark coloration is thought to help protect them from the harsh sun and insect bites in the dense forest canopy. 

Additionally, their skin is often covered in dirt and mud, which provides further protection against biting insects and helps regulate their body temperature. 

The process of African forest elephants rolling around in mud is called wallowing, and after this, their skin color might appear yellow or red. 

The trunk of the African forest elephant is highly dexterous and serves multiple functions, such as grasping food, drinking water, and communicating with other elephants. 

Their ears are relatively small compared to those of African bush elephants. 

Both male and female African forest elephants possess ivory tusks, though they tend to be smaller and thinner than their savannah relatives. 

african elephants
African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) bull walking close by | AndreAnita via Getty Images

African bush elephants are renowned for their colossal size, making them the largest and heaviest land animals. 

These gentle giants reach a shoulder height of 13 feet and weigh over 20,000 pounds. 

Like the African forest elephants, the bush elephants also experience some sexual dimorphism, making males significantly larger than their female counterparts. 

Their massive size is an adaptation that helps deter most potential predators and allows them to reach foliage high in trees. 

The most distinctive feature of the African bush elephant is its elongated, muscular trunk. 

This remarkable appendage serves many purposes, acting as a versatile tool. 

Both male and female African bush elephants have tusks- elongated incisor teeth. 

Despite its rugged appearance, their skin is sensitive to touch, and elephants often use dust and mud to protect themselves from sunburn and insects. 

Their greyish-brown skin color serves as effective camouflage in their natural habitat.

Habitat and Distribution

African forest elephants are primarily found in the tropical rainforests of Central and West Africa. 

Their habitat comprises a complex mosaic of dense forests, swampy areas, and clearings. 

These highly adaptable elephants can easily navigate through their environment’s thick undergrowth and towering trees. 

They can be found in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Ghana. 

Despite their widespread nature, African forest elephants face survival risks due to habitat loss, poaching, and other threats. 

On the other hand, African bush elephants are primarily found in various habitats across sub-Saharan Africa. 

Their adaptability to different ecosystems is a testament to their resilience. 

These elephants are found in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Botswana, etc. 

Like their counterparts, they face numerous challenges that require concerted conservation efforts to ensure their survival and the preservation of their habitats. 

Behavior and Social Structure

african elephants
African elephant (Loxodonta africana) herd foraging in grassland | AndreAnita via Getty Images

African elephants are generally known for their intelligence, complex social structures, and unique behaviors. 

These creatures have complex communication systems using a combination of vocalizations, body language, and infrasound (low-frequency sound waves below the range of human hearing) to communicate with one another. 

Elephants are among the most intelligent animals on the planet. 

They exhibit problem-solving skills, self-awareness, and the ability to remember complex information over long periods. 

This intelligence is crucial for their survival, as it helps them navigate their environment and adapt to changing conditions. 

African elephants are also known for their strong family bonds. 

african elephants
Herd of African elephants | Doctor_J via Getty Images

They live in multigenerational herds led by a matriarch, usually the oldest and most experienced female. 

The matriarch plays a crucial role in decision-making and guiding the herd to essential resources, such as water and food. 

These herds consist of related females and their offspring, creating a tight-knit family unit.

Diet and Feeding

african elephants
Time to eat for this African elephant | Alexey Kuznetsov via Getty Images

African elephants are generally herbivorous. 

African forest elephants consume tree bark, plants, and over 70 different types of fruits. 

On the other hand, the African bush elephant eats primarily grasses, creepers, and herbs, consuming as much as 330 pounds of food per day. 

Elephants are known to graze and browse for food throughout the day, with intermittent breaks for rest. 

They can also cover significant distances in search of food, often leading to changes in their habitats. 

african elephants
Rear view of a herd of elephants drinking water from a river | NickyLloyd via Getty Images

Because of their trunks, African elephants have a unique way of eating. 

The trunk is essentially a fusion of the elephant’s nose and upper lip. 

It contains a sophisticated network of muscles and can perform various tasks, including smelling, grasping, and manipulating objects. 

Once an elephant has located its preferred food, it uses the trunk to reach out and grasp the vegetation. 

Depending on the elephant’s preference and food availability, this can involve grazing on grasses or browsing tree leaves, branches, or shrubs. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle

african elephants
African Elephant family in Wildlife | Nikada via Getty Images

Mating among African forest elephants is a complex and secretive affair. 

Due to the dense vegetation in their habitat, visual encounters are limited, so elephants rely heavily on vocalizations and chemical communication to find potential mates. 

Depending on the population density and available nutrition, females mature sexually between ages 8-12. 

They start reproducing on average at age 23 and have babies every 5-6 years. 

The males often engage in aggressive displays to establish dominance and gain access to receptive females. 

Once a dominant male has gained the attention of a female in estrus, mating can occur. 

The birth of a forest elephant calf is a remarkable event. 

The mother and other female members of the herd actively participate in helping the newborn stand and nurse. 

The calf depends entirely on its mother’s milk for the first few years. 

This close-knit family structure protects and supports the vulnerable calf in the dense and potentially dangerous forest.

Mating rituals among African bush elephants are noteworthy. 

african elephants
African elephants mating | Utopia_88 via Getty Images

Bulls compete for the attention of receptive females, engaging in impressive displays of dominance. 

These displays often involve mock charges, trumpet calls, and intimidating postures. 

When bulls are around 15 years old, spermatogenesis begins. 

At the age of eleven, cows ovulate for the first time. 

Once a bull successfully courts a female, mating occurs. 

The gestation period for African bush elephants is incredibly long, lasting approximately 22 months. 

This is the longest gestation period of any land animal

During this time, the female will carefully nurture her developing fetus, ensuring its well-being. 

As elephant calves grow, they gradually become more independent. 

They continue to stay close to their mother and the herd, learning essential survival skills. 

The maximum lifespan of the African bush elephant is between 70 and 75 years.

Ecological Role and Interactions

african elephants
The famous ecosystem engineer, the African elephant! | AndreAnita via Getty Images

African elephants are often called “ecosystem engineers” due to their ability to modify their habitat significantly. 

They are herbivores with voracious appetites, consuming vast quantities of vegetation daily. 

This constant foraging activity can transform the landscape, opening clearings in dense vegetation and creating forest pathways. 

These changes, in turn, affect the distribution of plants and other animals in their environment. 

One of the most crucial roles African elephants play is seed dispersal. 

Elephants become crucial agents in dispersing seeds over long distances as they consume various plant species, including fruits and seeds. 

african elephants
An elephant feeds on foliage | Keith_Rose via Getty Images

Their dung provides a fertile substrate for seed germination, and this process helps regenerate plant species and maintain biodiversity in their habitat. 

In arid regions, African elephants have been observed digging for water during droughts. 

Their ability to unearth underground water sources provides them with a lifeline and creates watering holes that benefit many other species during dry periods. 

These watering holes become essential hubs for wildlife and can support entire ecosystems. 

By selectively foraging on certain plant species, elephants help control the growth of specific plants that might otherwise become dominant. 

This process of “top-down” herbivore regulation ensures a more balanced and diverse plant community, which, in turn, benefits various herbivores and other animals dependent on these plants for food and shelter.

Conservation Status and Threats

african elephants
The ivory tusks of the African elephant | KvdB50 via Getty Images

One of the most critical threats to African elephants is poaching for their ivory tusks. 

Despite international bans on ivory trade, demand for ivory remains high in some parts of the world, driving poachers to target elephants for their valuable tusks. 

The illicit ivory trade has been responsible for a significant decline in elephant populations. 

Apart from ivory, other elephant products, such as skin, meat, and bones, are illegally traded. 

This trade threatens elephant populations and contributes to the decline of other wildlife species. 

The expansion of human activities, including agriculture, logging, and infrastructure development, has led to the loss and fragmentation of elephant habitats. 

As their natural habitat shrinks, elephants are forced into closer contact with humans, increasing human-elephant conflicts. 

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

african elephants
Large African elephants incoming! | StuPorts via Getty Images

One of the most helpful survival strategies of African elephants is their size. 

This enormous size provides them several advantages, including protection from predators and the ability to reach food sources that are out of reach for smaller herbivores. 

African elephants are also highly social animals and live in complex family groups known as herds. 

These herds are typically led by a matriarch, the oldest and most experienced female, who guides the group in search of food, water, and safety. 

This social structure enhances their chances of survival by providing protection and collective knowledge. 

These elephants also communicate using a combination of vocalizations, body language, and infrasound. 

They produce various sounds that serve various purposes, such as warning of danger, indicating estrus in females, and maintaining social bonds. 

Infrasound, below the range of human hearing, can travel long distances, allowing elephants to communicate over vast territories. 

In some regions of Africa, elephants undertake remarkable long-distance migrations in search of food and water. 

These migrations can span hundreds of miles and are crucial for their survival, especially during dry seasons. 

The ability to remember and navigate these routes is a testament to their remarkable memory.

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

african elephants
African elephant roaming the land | skynesher via Getty Images

African elephants have held a revered place in the folklore, spirituality, and cultural traditions of many African societies. 

These animals symbolize strength, wisdom, and resilience in various African cultures. 

For example, in some West African traditions, elephants embody leadership and power, often featured in tribal emblems and ceremonies. 

African elephants have played pivotal roles in the histories of ancient civilizations. 

In Egypt, for instance, these animals were used in various capacities, from labor in construction to religious symbolism. 

European powers’ exploration and colonization of Africa in the 19th century were also deeply intertwined with African elephants. 

Ivory, derived from elephant tusks, became a valuable commodity, driving a devastating ivory trade that threatened elephant populations. 

African elephants face grave threats from poaching for their ivory and habitat loss due to human activities. 

As human populations expand, conflicts between humans and elephants over land and resources have become more common. 

Crop raids by elephants can result in significant economic losses for local communities. 

Finding sustainable solutions that allow coexistence is a pressing challenge. 

Conservation efforts, including international bans on ivory trade and protected areas, aim to safeguard these magnificent creatures.

Future Prospects and Research

african elephants
African elephant in the green plains of Masai Mara | guenterguni via Getty Images

With African elephants, one of the primary research areas is conservation efforts. 

Various conservation organizations and governments are working tirelessly to protect African elephants. 

Conservation efforts include strengthening anti-poaching measures, creating protected areas, and fostering community-based conservation initiatives. 

The future of African elephant conservation lies in cutting-edge research and technology. 

Researchers utilize advanced techniques such as GPS tracking, remote sensing, and DNA analysis to monitor elephant populations, their movements, and genetic diversity. 

Engaging local communities in conservation efforts is crucial. 

Initiatives that provide alternative livelihoods and education can reduce human-elephant conflicts and foster a sense of ownership over elephant conservation. 

Research into the effects of climate change on African elephant habitats and behavior is also ongoing, which will help conservationists adapt strategies to the changing environment.


African elephants have left an indelible mark on our world, from their diverse species, physical characteristics, and intricate social structures to their vital roles as ecosystem engineers and cultural icons. 

However, their existence is threatened by persistent challenges, such as poaching for ivory and habitat loss. 

Despite these threats, there is hope in the form of conservation efforts and ongoing research initiatives that aim to protect and preserve these gentle giants for future generations. 

The story of African elephants is a testament to their resilience and the interconnectedness of all life on Earth, underscoring the urgent need to safeguard their future in our rapidly changing world.


Q: How do African elephants handle drought conditions in their habitat?

They are known for their ability to dig for water sources hidden beneath dry riverbeds or underground.

This behavior helps them survive and creates watering holes that benefit other wildlife during periods of water scarcity. 

Q: What are the key differences in the challenges faced by African forest elephants and African bush elephants?

African forest elephants primarily inhabit tropical rainforests and face threats like habitat loss and poaching. Due to their smaller size and dense forest environment, they are more challenging to study and protect.

In contrast, African bush elephants are found in various sub-Saharan habitats and are known for their colossal size.

They face threats similar to forest elephants but are more accessible for research and conservation efforts due to their broader distribution.


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