Unmistakable, it is the largest land animal in the world by a considerable margin. Opinion varies as to the classification of subspecies, but two are clearly defined. The savanna elephant, L.a.africana is the ‘common’ elephant (and which some authorities, notably Ansell, 1974, break down into three or four sub-species), and the Forest elephant L.a.cyclotis, which is confined to the Congo forests. The forest elephants are considerably smaller than their savanna cousins, with pronounced, very thin downwards growing tusks of considerable length. Head shape and trunk tip form also differ marginally. Both sexes in African elephants normally carry tusks (unlike Indian elephants where only the males have tusks), which are elongated upper incisor teeth. Tuskless elephants of both sexes do occur and have a well founded reputation for aggressiveness.
Widely distributed right across Africa, South of the Sahara. In West Africa, populations are small and isolated, whilst Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe have a large, expanding and contiguous population. Tanzania also maintains a healthy population, but elsewhere poaching and human settlement have significantly reduced numbers.
Elephants have an incredibly wide habitat tolerance, existing from the equatorial jungle in the Congo and West Africa through swamps in Zambia and Botswana to the savannas and through to desert in Botswana and Namibia. Elephants climb remarkably well and are found in the mountainous regions of central Africa and most parts of the Rift Valley. They are naturally absent only from the thickest jungle and truly waterless regions of the Sahara. Competition with man though, has left them locally extinct in many parts of their former range.
Elephant by nature are gregarious, and occur in groups usually numbering from between 10 to 20, and sometimes as many as 100 individuals. Herd structure is centred on the cows and their young. Bulls generally live in small bachelor groups consisting of an old bull and a few youngsters, and only join the herds when females are in oestrus. Larger herds numbering in their hundreds with permanent resident bulls, occur in areas under pressure from human encroachment.
They are highly intelligent animals and have a highly developed social structure which is often likened to that of human nature. The herd is led by the matriarch, the oldest and wisest cow of the group. When threatened, the cows cluster behind the matriarch with calves in the centre of the formation. Any bulls with the herd ‘bombshell’. It is the matriarch who determines feeding patterns, length of resting periods and even when to drink.
Elephants are not territorial, and do not object to other elephants within their normal home range. The normal home range for the herd is dependant on water and food availability and varies from 15km² in high rainfall areas to over 2000km² for desert herds. Elephants are generally peaceful animals and fights are rare, although bulls occasionally kill each other. They are also very tolerant of other species except lion, rhino, hippo and of course man, and have been known to kill these four species when circumstances permit.
One interesting feature, with implications for the hunter, is their ability to communicate over vast distances. Low frequency sounds (below human hearing range) emitted by the stomach rumbling help individuals keep in touch over distances of up to 1km, whilst Ultra low frequency sounds emitted through the trunk can be heard and interpreted by animals up to 50km (30miles) away. A hunt that goes wrong could alert every elephant for a considerable distance.
One of the most versatile herbivores, elephants are classified as bulk mixed feeders. They can eat anything from grass to small branches, which are gathered with the trunk and pushed into the mouth. The trunk's length and dexterity enables elephants to select individual seed pods or tear off entire branches as high as 4 metres above the ground (6 metres in a big bull). Elephants have a very simple and consequently inefficient digestive system, which necessitates an intake of around 150kgs of food daily. Food preferences change throughout the year, with elephants eating considerably more grass and herbs during the rainy season and concentrating on browse in the dry season.
| Minimum Scores|
80lbs for heaviest tusk
Although elephants may breed all year round, the peak in calving coincides with the onset of the rains. Gestation period is two years, and the calf stands about 90cm (3') high at birth. Calves suckle for two to three years before being weaned, and thereafter remain close to their mothers until about twelve years of age. Adolescent males leave the herd (aged about 12-14) and join a bachelor group. They will begin breeding at about 25 years of age, but only come into musth (and so have a high breeding success rate) at over 35 years. Cows may reach sexual maturity as young as 9 years old and continue breeding until they are 55.
Tusks in both sexes continue to grow throughout life, and a bull is unlikely to reach trophy status under 40 years of age.