African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

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. 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 on 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, the tallest female rises to 3.4 meters. Apart from overall size, unless the male is aroused, the most obvious difference between males and females is that females have an angular forehead, while a bull’s forehead is more rounded.

There’s more: an African elephant has the largest 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 in it. An elephant uses its tusks as both tools and weapons. The longest recorded tusks were 3.17m long, while heaviest reached 70kg.

If you’re working on your Africa safari in Uganda and would like to meet these magnificent giants, you must know that the African elephants occur in all national parks except for Lake Mburo. They are most likely to be seen in Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth and Kidepo national parks. We recommend you take a boat safari on the Nile in Murchison of Kazinga channel in QENP to get a sight of these gentle giants gracefully flock the water banks in massive herds.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in uganda
Mother Elephant | @Kevin Hughes

Behavior

There are two subspecies of the African elephant – the forest and the savannah elephant. The smaller and slightly hairier forest elephant is mostly found in central and western Africa’s equatorial forests, while 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.

They live in herds consisting of related females and their calves. The herds are matriarchal, meaning that they are led by one female, while the males (bulls) tend to roam alone. The family units of savannah elephants tend to be around 10 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 around on their own or form bachelor herds.

Africna Elephants Murhison uganda

Elephant Bonds

Elephants live in a close, cross-generational sisterhood of females. An African elephant mother has one of the longest 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 breast-feed 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.

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 defense of the herd’s members.

Matriarchal herds of elephants | @guenterguni, 500px

What they eat

Elephants are strict vegetarians and eat grass, leaves, fruits and even branches or twigs. In any 24-hour period, elephants spend 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.

At the rare end, elephants poop up to 30 times a day and deposit as much as 150 kilos of dung in the process. 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 per day. This compensates for the fact that as much as five litres is lost every hour through the process of transepidermal water loss (through the skin), and that they urinate up to 50 litres each day. Perhaps the more reason to take that boat safari on Kazinga Channel and the Nile to catch them filling up their massive water tanks.

12 Day Explore Uganda's Hidden Gems, african elephants on Africa big five animals

How long they live

An African elephant reportedly has been known to live up to a maximum of 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.

African elephants uganda

How they communicate

African elephants communicate acoustically with others of their species. Many of their calls are low frequency calls of pa. 20Hz (infrasound—outside the range of human hearing). They can make a variety of calls including rumble, trumpet, snort, roar, bark, and grunt. 3 other calls have been recordes: “rev, croak, and chuff.” A trumpet, roar, or growl could show signs of aggression. A “soft chirp” shows 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. They 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 their surrounding environment for signs of something amiss. They communicate visually by using their trunks or ears to signal other herd members.

Tactile communication is between a mother and her child or two elephants trying to mate. Forms of chemical communication along with scent marking among African elephants is done by males who are mating with the females in a clan. Around the clan the males will mark trees or bushes with their tusks or by secreting a substance onto the bush.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

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 major cause of the species’ decline.

Although illegal hunting remains a significant factor in some areas, particularly in Central Africa, currently 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.

References

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