The African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the world’s largest land mammal and perhaps the most enduring symbol of nature’s grace and fragility and is also one of the most intelligent and entertaining to watch on a classic Africa safari game drive.
The African elephant has two subspecies – the forest and the savannah elephant. The smaller and slightly hairier forest elephant is mostly found in central and western Africa’s equatorial forest. The savannah elephant is found throughout the grassy plains and bushlands of t of east and southern Africa. The two races are thought to interbreed in parts of western Uganda.
A fully-grown male elephant can weigh a whopping 6300 kilos; even the smallest adult male rarely dips below 4000 kilos, which is way more than twice the weight of an average family SUV.
Females are usually just over half the weight of the male. The size difference between the two is not quite as surprising as when it comes to height – the tallest males are 4 meters tall, and the tallest female rises to 3.4 meters.
Apart from the overall size, the most obvious difference between males and females, unless the male is aroused, is that females have an angular forehead. In contrast, a bull’s forehead is more rounded.
More, an African elephant has the giant brain of any mammal alive; it can weigh up to 6 kilos. Its trunk, which serves an elephant like a hand, can be 2 meters long and weigh over 130 kilos – a trunk has no bones but may have 60,000 muscles.
An elephant uses its tusks as both tools and weapons. The longest recorded tusks were 3.17m long, while the heaviest reached 70 kilos.
You will most likely see them in Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth and Kidepo National Parks. To get really close to the elephants, we recommend you take a boat safari on the Nile in Murchison or ride the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park. You will find the magnificent giants gracefully flocking the water banks in massive herds.
African Elephants live in herds consisting of related females and their calves. The herds are matriarchal, led by one female, while the males (bulls) tend to roam alone.
The family units of savannah elephants tend to be around ten individuals, but these units can come together to form a ‘clan’ of up to 70 individuals led by one female. The forest elephants live in smaller family units.
Mother—daughter bonds are strong and may exist for up to 50 years. Males generally leave the family group at around 12 years, after which they either roam alone or form bachelor herds.
An African elephant mother has one of the most prolonged pregnancy periods in the natural world: around 650 days. Most often, the mother gives birth to a single calf, and that calf will be able to walk, albeit unsteadily, within hours of being born.
Baby elephants continue to breastfeed throughout the first two years of their lives, and many will not be truly independent until the age of ten. If the young elephant is a male, he will leave the herd of its birth somewhere between 10 and 14 years of age. Sometimes this dispersing male will remain alone or attach itself to an experienced larger bull elephant.
Elephants live in a close, cross-generational sisterhood of females.
Young female elephants remain with their natal herd, which may consist of their mother, grandmother, aunties, female cousins and other related females. This female bond will last throughout a female elephant’s lifetime.
The herd is usually led by an older matriarch, an experienced female that takes the herd to water in times of drought and is the first to stand in defence of the herd’s members.
Elephant Feeding Habits
Elephants are strict vegetarians and eat grass, leaves, fruits, branches, or twigs. In a 24-hour-period, elephants spend up to 19 hours eating a massive 340 kilos (5% of their body weight), and that’s about 50 tonnes of food every year.
In the rare end, elephants poop up to 30 times a day and deposit as much as 150 kilos of dung. Elephant dung serves a critical ecological purpose, spreading undigested seeds (a food source for insects, baboons and birds), which enable trees to spread their progeny; researchers have found that a single piece of elephant dung contains nearly 5700 acacia seeds.
They will drink between 100 and 200 litres of water daily, compensating for up to five litres lost every hour through transepidermal water loss (through the skin) and 50 litres of urine each day.
Perhaps the more reason to take that boat safari on Kazinga Channel and the Nile and watch them fill up their massive water tanks.
How long do elephants live?
An African elephant has reportedly been known to live up to 65 years in captivity. However, unpublished reports have stated that African elephants may live up to 80 years in captivity. In the wild, African elephants live for an average of 60-70 years.
Communication between elephants
African elephants communicate acoustically with others of their species in low-frequency calls of pa 20Hz infrasound, which is outside the range of human hearing.
They can make various calls, including rumble, trumpet, snort, roar, bark, grunt, rev, croak, and chuff. A trumpet, roar, or growl could mean impending aggression, and a “soft chirp” could mean submission or intimidation. Infant elephants will gurgle during play and squeal when frightened.
The African elephants can hear one of these calls from over 2km away and will make these calls to warn or gather others in their herd or to signal they are ready to mate.
The African elephant watches and listens to its surrounding environment for signs of something amiss and communicates visually using its trunks or ears to signal other herd members.
Tactile communication is usually between a mother and her child or two elephants trying to mate.
Forms of chemical communication and scent marking among African elephants are done by males mating with the females in a clan. The males will mark trees or bushes with their tusks or by secreting a substance onto the bush.
Threats to the African elephant
The African Elephant is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red list. Poaching for ivory and meat has traditionally been the primary cause of the species’ decline.
Although illegal hunting remains a significant factor in some areas, particularly in Central Africa, the most important perceived threat is the loss and fragmentation of habitat caused by ongoing human population expansion and rapid land conversion.
A specific manifestation of this trend is the reported increase in human-elephant conflict, which further aggravates the threat to elephant populations.
How to see elephants in Uganda
African elephants are hard to miss on Uganda’s savannah plains. Even an unguided drive in any of Uganda’s national parks will bring you close to a lone bull. Try driving on the highway between Kaseses and Ishaka through Queen Elizabeth National Park and look over the sweeping plains; look out for massive dark figures.
A drive on the game tracks in Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth and Kidepo National Parks will bring you close to numerous elephant herds.
Take a boat trip on the Nile in Murchison or ride the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park. You’ll come close to almost touching the magnificent giants flocking the water banks in massive herds.