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African Elephant

Order : Proboscidea
Family : Elephantidae
Genus and Species : Loxodonta africana and L. cyclotis

The world's largest living land mammals are best known for their huge size, unique body parts, social behavior, and longevity.

Physical Description: Two African elephant species are recognized: the larger and more widespread savanna elephant (L. africana), pictured here, and the forest elephant (L. cyclotis), which is smaller, has downward-pointed tusks, and smaller, rounder ears. Some genetic evidence suggests there may be a third species, the west African elephant, intermediate to these two. The animals' trunks, unique among living mammals, are versatile, enabling elephants to manipulate tiny objects or tear down huge tree limbs. Wide, padded feet enable elephants to walk quietly. Large, flappable ears help these huge animals to cool off, although elephants often must retreat to the shade or water during the hottest part of the day.

Size: Male African elephants of the savanna species grow up to 25 feet long, stand up to 11 feet tall and weigh up to 14,000 pounds. Males are usually larger than females.

Geographic Distribution: African elephants live in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, although their range is now broken into patches. Small numbers of forest elephants live in dense equatorial forests of Central Africa from Zaire west to Mauritania, while savanna elephants are far more widespread in drier woodlands and savannas. Savanna elephants are now most common in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa. The suspected third species lives in both savanna and forest in west Africa.

Status: African elephants are listed as endangered on the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Animals.

Habitat: African elephants live wherever they can find enough food and water with minimal disturbance from people. Most of the continent's elephants live on savannas and in dry woodlands. In some regions, they occur in desert areas; in others, they are found in mountains. In Congo and other equatorial countries, forest elephants live in dense tropical rainforest.

Natural Diet: A dexterous trunk and large, rasping molars allow African elephants to gather and process a wide variety of vegetation. During the rainy season, savanna elephants usually seek out grasses and herbs. During other times of year, they frequent forests, especially those by streams, where they also eat leaves, fruit, and bark from a variety of plants. Elephants supplement the sodium in their food by visiting mineral licks.

Reproduction: Older and larger males—especially those in musth (condition of heightened testosterone levels)—dominate the breeding, winning the acceptance of females in heat. Gestation lasts 22 months, and usually only one calf is born. Female African savanna elephants can usually breed by age ten and give birth to one young every four years.

Life Span: The average life span of an African savanna elephant in the wild is 60 years.

Behavior: Females and young males live in cohesive herds of about ten related adults and their offspring. The matriarch, usually the oldest and largest female, sets the pace of the group's activities. Males leave herds at puberty, around their 13th year, and travel alone or in bachelor groups. Elephants travel widely in search of food. Movements vary depending upon food availability. African elephants communicate with rumbles, growls, bellows, and moans. Some of these varied, low-frequency sounds may travel a mile or more.

Past/Present/Future: African elephants once lived throughout Africa; they now inhabit no more than one-third of the continent and are gone from the Sahara. Over the past 150 years, ivory hunters have ruthlessly hunted them for their tusks. Between 1979 and 1989, Africa's elephant population plummeted from 1,300,000 animals to 750,000, due mostly to ivory hunting. Since the 1980s, an international ban on trade in ivory has helped many populations hold steady or rebound. However, African elephants have lost much of their habitat to ranches, farms, and desertification. The forest elephant, always far less common than the savanna subspecies, is under threat from logging and market hunting for its meat. African elephants are now found mostly in reserves. In some parks, confined elephant populations have major impacts on habitat, changing open forests into grasslands.

A Few African Elephant Neighbors:
Red-Billed Oxpecker (Buphagus Erythrorhynchus): A starling relative that picks ticks and other parasites off elephants and other large African animals.
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus Ibis): A white heron that follows elephants and other large animals, catching the small animals they flush.
African Buffalo (Syncerus Caffer): Massive, herd-living wild cattle that sometimes challenge elephants for position at water holes.

By saving African elephant habitat, we protect these and many other animals.
Among their many uses, elephants' trunks sometimes serve as snorkels, allowing submerged swimming elephants to breathe as they cross deep rivers or lakes.
Elephants' closest known relatives are dugongs and manatees, hyraxes, and aardvarks.

Further Reading:
Elephants: A Cultural and Natural History, by Karl Groning and Martin Saller; Konemann (publisher), 1999.
African Elephants, by Reinhard Kunkel; Harry N. Abrams (publisher), 1999.
Elephants: Majestic Creatures of the Wild, edited by Jeheskel Shoshani; Rodale Press, 1992
Copyright 1999, Friends of the National Zoo. Updated 2002.

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