Up until 200 years ago, elephant were probably the most common single species found across the continent, occurring from Ethiopia in the North almost to Capetown in the South. Huge demand for ivory in Europe starting in the early 18th century and continuing until the 1930ís, combined with a phenomenal human population explosion in Africa during the 20th century has served to significantly reduce elephant numbers and limit their distribution. Their total numbers before the scramble for Africa can only be guessed at, but by the beginning of this century, England alone was importing the ivory of 50,000 elephants annually, and the rest of Europe even more. European professional ivory hunters accounted for some of this harvest, but most of the animals were killed by tribesmen who then traded the ivory for goods from European traders.
By 1900 the whole Southern African subregion was home to fewer than 10,000 individuals, and it was a similar situation across the continent. Wise management by the various colonial governments enabled elephants to stage a remarkable come-back, and by the 1960ís they were numbered in the hundreds of thousands again, and controlling numbers became a real issue. Increasing demand for ivory from the far East, coupled with economic collapse in much of Africa has again led to a crash in numbers, such that only a few countries with effective conservation programmes and good law enforcement are able to offer elephant on licence to hunters. Things are looking up though in certain quarters with elephant hunting having restarted in Botswana two seasons ago, and elephant populations making a significant recovery in Zambia.
Elephants are highly intelligent and social animals, living in groups ranging from small bachelor herds to larger breeding herds numbering from 20 to 200 plus. The bachelor herds usually comprise an old bull, well past his prime, accompanied by a few young males who have been kicked out of the breeding herds. The breeding herds are led by an old cow (the matriarch) who controls all the social activities of the herd. Elephants are totally water dependent, with an adult requiring about 160 litres of water a day. Even the desert elephants are never far from water, usually obtaining their quota by digging in the sand of dry river beds.
Elephants are bulk feeders, with an inefficient digestive system, fully capable of feeding on browse as well as grass. Generally they eat both, with adults consuming an average of 170kg (375lbs) of forage daily. Food is collected with the muscular trunk and then pushed into the mouth. Similarly, water is sucked up into the trunk before being squirted into the mouth.