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African elephant
African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Tanzania
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Proboscidea
Family: Elephantidae
Genus: Loxodonta
Anonymous, 1827
African Elephant
A close-up from the Addo Elephant Park, South Africa.
A breeding herd of elephants, entirely cows and young, in the Makuleke area of the Kruger Park, South Africa.
Young bull elephant
A young bull elephant in a breeding herd displaying mock aggression.

African elephants are elephants of the genus Loxodonta. The genus consists of two extant species: the African bush elephant, and the smaller African forest elephant.


One species of African elephant, the bush elephant, is the largest living terrestrial animal, while the forest elephant is the third-largest. Their thickset bodies rest on stocky legs, and they have concave backs. Their large ears enable heat loss. The upper lip and nose form a trunk. The trunk acts as a fifth limb, a sound amplifier, and an important method of touch. African elephants' trunks end in two opposing lips, whereas the Asian elephant trunk ends in a single lip. African elephant males stand 3.2–4.0 m (10–13 ft) tall at the shoulder and weigh 4,700–6,048 kg (10,360–13,330 lb), while females stand 2.2–2.6 m (7–9 ft) tall and weigh 2,160–3,232 kg (4,762–7,125 lb). The largest recorded individual stood 4 m (13.1 ft) at the shoulders and weighed 10 tonnes (10 long tons; 11 short tons).


At any one time, elephants have one molar in each jaw bone (two upper, two lower). Each weighs about 11 lbs and measures about 12 inches long. As they wear away at the front, new molars emerge in the back of the mouth and gradually replace the old ones. Elephants replace their teeth six times. If it survives to 60 years of age the elephant no longer has teeth and will die of starvation.

Their tusks are also teeth, the second set of upper incisors become the tusks. They are used for digging for roots and stripping the bark off trees for food, and, fighting each other during mating season, or defending themselves against predators. They weigh from 50-100 pounds and may be from 5 to 8 feet long. However, a result of poachers killing elephants with the biggest tusks has been a survivor population with much smaller tusks. Both bulls and cows have tusks.

Distribution and habitat

African elephants are found widely in Sub-Saharan Africa, in dense forests, mopane and miombo woodlands, Sahelian scrub, or deserts.


Bush and forest elephants are nowadays generally considered to be two distinct species. The African forest elephant has a longer and narrower mandible, rounder ears, a different number of toenails, straighter and downward tusks, and considerably smaller size. With regard to the number of toenails: the African bush elephant normally has 4 toenails on the front foot and 3 on the hind foot, the African forest elephant normally has 5 toenails on the front foot and 4 on the hind foot (like the Asian elephant). Hybrids between the two species do occur.


African elephant societies are arranged around family units. Each family unit is made up of around ten closely related females and their calves and is led by an older female known as the matriarch. When separate family units bond, they form kinship or bond groups. After puberty, male elephants tend to form alliances with other males.

Elephants are at their most fertile between the ages of 25 and 45. Calves are born after a gestation period of nearly two years. The calves are cared for by their mother and other young females in the group, known as allomothers.

Elephants use some vocalisations that are beyond the hearing range of humans, to communicate across large distances. Elephant mating rituals include the gentle entwining of trunks.


African elephant (Loxodonta africana) feeding
African elephant (Loxodonta africana), feeding, Queen Elizabeth Park, Uganda

While feeding, elephants use their trunks to pluck at leaves and their tusks to tear at branches, which can cause enormous damage to foliage. A herd may deplete an area of foliage depriving other herbivores for a time. African elephants may eat up to 450 kg (992 lb) of vegetation per day, although their digestive system is not very efficient; only 40% of this food is properly digested. The foregut fermentation used by ruminants is generally considered more efficient than the hindgut fermentation employed by proboscideans and perissodactyls; however, the ability to process food more rapidly than foregut fermenters gives hindgut fermenters an advantage at very large body size, as they are able to accommodate significantly larger food intakes.


African elephants are highly intelligent, and they have a very large and highly convoluted neocortex, a trait they share with humans, apes and some dolphin species. They are amongst the world's most intelligent species. With a mass of just over 5 kg (11 lb), elephant brains are larger than those of any other land animal, and although the largest whales have body masses twentyfold those of a typical elephant, whale brains are barely twice the mass of an elephant's brain. The elephant's brain is similar to that of humans in terms of structure and complexity. For example, the elephant's cortex has as many neurons as that of a human brain, suggesting convergent evolution.

Elephants exhibit a wide variety of behaviors, including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, art, play, a sense of humor, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory and possibly language. All point to a highly intelligent species that is thought to be equal with cetaceans, and primates.


Female African forest elephant with juvenile in the Republic of the Congo

African elephants show sexual dimorphism in weight and shoulder height by age 20, due to the rapid early growth of males; by age 25, males are double the weight of females. However, both sexes continue to grow throughout their lives.

Female African elephants are able to start reproducing at around 10 to 12 years of age, and are in estrus for about 2 to 7 days. They do not mate at a specific time; however, they are less likely to reproduce in times of drought than when water is plentiful. The gestation period of an elephant is 22 months and fertile females usually give birth every 3 – 6 years, so if they live to around 50 years of age, they may produce 7 offspring. Females are a scarce and mobile resource for the males so there is intense competition to gain access to estrous females.

Post sexual maturity, males begin to experience musth, a physical and behavioral condition that is characterized by elevated testosterone, aggression and more sexual activity. Musth also serves a purpose of calling attention to the females that they are of good quality, and it cannot be mimicked as certain calls or noises may be.

Males sire few offspring in periods when they are not in musth. During the middle of estrus, female elephants look for males in musth to guard them. The females will yell, in a loud, low way to attract males from far away. Male elephants can also smell the hormones of a female ready for breeding. This leads males to compete with each other to mate, which results in the females mating with older, healthier males. Females choose to a point who they mate with, since they are the ones who try to get males to compete to guard them. However, females are not guarded in the early and late stages of estrus, which may permit mating by younger males not in musth.

Males over the age of 25 compete strongly for females in estrous, and are more successful the larger and more aggressive they are. Bigger males tend to sire bigger offspring. Wild males begin breeding in their thirties when they are at a size and weight that is competitive with other adult males. Male reproductive success is maximal in mid-adulthood and then begins to decline. However, this can depend on the ranking of the male within their group, as higher-ranking males maintain a higher rate of reproduction.

Males usually stay with a female and her herd for only a few weeks before moving on in search for another mate. Less than a third of the population of female elephants will be in estrus at any given time and gestation period of an elephant is long, so it makes more evolutionary sense for a male to search for as many females as possible rather than stay with one group.


Poaching greatly reduced the population of elephants in Africa in the 20th century. In the eastern region of Chad, elephant herds were substantial as recently as 1970, with an estimated population of 400,000. However, by 2006 the number had dropped to about 10,000. The African elephant nominally has governmental protection, but poaching is a serious issue.

People moving into or near areas where elephants occur naturally is a problem. There is research into methods of safely driving groups of elephants away from humans. Playing recorded sounds of angry honey bees is remarkably effective at prompting elephants to flee an area. Sometimes elephant communities have grown so large that culling was needed to sustain the ecosystem.

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African elephant Facts for Kids. Homework Help - Kiddle Encyclopedia.