Elephant Basics

By any measure, elephants are remarkable animals

The largest land animals in the world today, there are two distinct species of elephants – the Asian elephant and the African elephant.  African elephants can grow to a height of about 13 feet and weigh more than ten tons, or 20,000 pounds!  Though smaller, Asian elephants can still grow to a height of 12 feet and weigh more than seven tons (14,000 lbs).  They have the largest brain and longest gestation period of any land animal with each pregnancy averaging 21.5 months.

Elephants are also long-lived.  Studies show African elephant life expectancy to be 41 years for females and 24 years for males, though the maximum lifespan for females is more than 65 years and close to 60 years for males.  Elephants develop at a rate similar to humans.

Since elephants are so large, they require an enormous amount of food.  Elephants may spend 12-18 hours a day feeding.  Adult elephants can eat between 200-600 pounds of food a day.  As herbivores, elephants consume grasses, tree foliage, bark, twigs, and other vegetation daily.  Elephants can also drink up to 50 gallons of water a day about as much as a standard bathtub holds.

Elephants are a keystone species that influence the composition of their environment while often benefiting other species.  The elephants ability to locate underground water and dig pools helps provide many other species with water during droughts.  Elephants may destroy trees and shrubs allowing for grasses to grow that other species eat.

Physical Characteristics

Their unique trunk acts as part nose to assist in breathing and detecting odors, and part hand to assist with manipulating objects, social interactions, eating, dust bathing, drawing-up water and releasing it into the mouth for drinking.  Their trunk is composed of more than 40,000 muscles, making it strong, flexible and dexterous.

Elephants ivory tusks are actually elongated incisor teeth.  They use these tusks to dig out minerals from the soil and to dig waterholes in dry riverbeds.  They excavate the holes using their trunk, tusks, and feet.

An elephant’s ears, especially those of the African elephant, help them to stay cool.  Their ears are filled with blood vessels; by holding them out in the wind or flapping them, an elephant can create its own cooling system.

The Social Life of Elephants

Matriarchal Societies

Elephants are highly intelligent animals that display complex social behaviors.  Researchers have observed greeting ceremonies, group defense, submission, tactile contacts, vocal communication, scent communication, social play, courtship, parenting, communal care, teaching, threat displays, charging, and fighting.

Elephants are social animals.  African family groups can average 8-10 individuals, while Asian units tend to be smaller, averaging 4-8 individuals.

Female elephants are by nature affiliative, meaning they focus their efforts on social interactions.  In general, older experienced females called matriarchs lead elephant families.  These female-led herds usually consist of adult daughters, their calves, and a number of juvenile and adolescent male and female offspring.  Since female elephants are known to remain reproductive throughout most of their lives, calf rearing is their primary activity beyond eating and drinking.

The Life of a Bull

Male elephants, called bulls, have very different social needs than females, and live different lives.

As they approach sexual maturity, males in the wild are driven out of or leave the family group.  Males spend as much as 95 percent of their life alone or in loose association with other bulls.  Though bulls are primarily solitary in adulthood, they do at times associate in bachelor groups.

Unlike females, male elephants are competitive.  In early years of adulthood, young bulls spend time learning the capabilities of other bulls in their area and establish a social hierarchy and status.  As they age and grow larger – and compete for breeding opportunities – bulls spend their time eating and seeking out females.  Adult males have annual periods of elevated testosterone levels, called musth, which increase their competitive drive and raise their social status.  This increases their chances of being selected by females to mate.

Strong Communicators

Elephants produce a variety of vocalizations including trumpets, squeaks, chirps, and low frequency rumbles. Rumble vocalizations contain frequencies that are below the range of human hearing (infrasonic components).  These low frequency calls can travel several miles and may be used to coordinate their movements.

Elephant Conservation

Today elephant populations are under pressure worldwide.

Elephant and Human Conflict

Elephants need a large amount of habitat because they eat so much food.  Today humans have become their direct competitors for space. Human populations in Africa and Asia have quadrupled since the turn of the century, the fastest growth rate on the planet.  Forest and savanna habitat once home to elephant herds has been converted to cropland, pasture for livestock, and timber for housing and fuel.

Humans do not always regard elephants as good neighbors.  When humans and elephants live close to one another, elephants can raid crops and sometimes rampage through villages.  As a result, local people often shoot elephants because they fear them and regard them as pests. 

Overexploitation and the Ivory Trade

The ivory trade became a serious threat to elephants in the 1970s as strong demand for ivory made it more valuable than gold.  As the price of ivory soared illegal ivory hunters, or poachers, became more organized.

Poachers often use automatic weapons, motorized vehicles, and airplanes to chase and kill thousands of elephants.  To cash-strapped governments and revolutionaries mired in civil wars, poaching ivory became a way to pay for more firearms and supplies.

Worldwide concern over the decline of the elephant led to a complete ban on the ivory trade in 1990, temporarily reducing the decline of elephant populations.  Despite this, illegal hunting of elephants has increased dramatically in the last ten years.  The primary cause appears to be the increased affluence of historical ivory-consuming nations, particularly China, and the accompanying increase in the demand for ivory products.

The Future for Elephants

Will elephants have a future?  The current population trends in the wild are deeply troubling.  It is estimated only 300,000 African elephants and 40,000 Asian elephants remain today.  Both populations are decreasing overall.  As elephant populations lose space to human population growth, humans must work to manage the space left so humans and elephants can co-exist.

You Can Help Create a Future for Elephants

Human behavior is impacting elephants.  There’s hope for elephants if we act responsibly.

       Don’t buy ivory.

       Support organizations working to stop the illegal ivory trade.

       Support organizations working to help elephants and people co-exist.

       Support organizations that inform people about the plight of elephants.

A Collaborative Partnership for Elephants

The National Elephant Center cares deeply about elephants and wants them to thrive in human care and in the wild.

The Center was created as a collaborative effort of nearly 70 accredited zoos nationwide.  Accredited zoos that connect people to elephants help inspire action toward their worldwide conservation.  Zoos also provide research and conservation around the world.  For example, accredited zoos manage a population of elephants while also supporting more than 85 international elephant conservation and research programs including field-based training, habitat restoration, reduction of human-elephant conflict, ecotourism, and community-based initiatives.

We encourage you to support and visit accredited zoos and connect with elephants.

When people see something they love, they want to save it.