Classification and Range
The African elephant, the largest living land mammal, belongs to the family Elephantidae, which includes only one other smaller relative, the Asian (or Indian) elephant.
African elephants once ranged from south of the Sahara Desert to northern South Africa. Today, African elephants are now mostly confined to parks and reserves.
African elephants are native to a wide variety of habitats including semi-desert scrub, open savannas and dense forest regions. Their habitat ranges from sea level to 16,000 feet (4,877 m).
Head/Body Length and Shoulder Height
Adult length: 18-24 feet (5.5-7.3 m)
Adult height: 10-13 feet (3-4 m) (2.5-3 m)
Adult weight: 8,800-15,500 pounds (4,000-7,045 kg)
Average life expectancy for an elephant in captivity and the wild is about 45 years.
In the wild: Elephants feed mainly on grass, tree foliage, bark, roots, shrubs, fruit and soil for its mineral content. Full-grown elephants consume about six to eight percent of their own body weight in vegetation each day. To accomplish this, they spend as many as 18 hours per day feeding. These massive animals can drink 26 gallons (100 l) of water at one time and, when thirsty, more than 55 gallons (208 l) within minutes.
At the zoo: Hay, grain and vegetables (carrots are a favorite).
Females (cows) mature sexually at around 9-12 years old and can potentially reproduce into their 40s. Females produce calves at intervals of about every three to five years. Although males (bulls) reach sexual maturity around age 10, they often do not breed until they are about 30 when they become large and strong enough to successfully compete with other large male elephants for females. The gestation period lasts about 22 months (630-660 days) after which one calf is born; twins are rare. Average calf birth weight is about 265 pounds (120 kg).
Young suckle with their mouth (not trunk) and may not be fully weaned until the birth of the next calf. While adult elephants have no natural predators, young elephants are occasionally preyed on by lions, hyenas or crocodiles. Most physical growth occurs by age 15, and top mental ability is reached at ages 30-45. Elephants have four molars, which are replaced five times, for a total of six sets in a lifetime. Death comes when the last set of molars wear out and the animal can no longer eat.
Location at the Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo's one female East African bush elephant and two female Asian elephants can be seen at the Elephant Forest exhibit located in the Tropical Asia bioclimatic zone. The elephants have use of a large area that includes a paddock, bathing pond and barn. On cold or wet days, visitors can expect to find the elephants in their comfortable barn.
What Big Teeth You Have!
Although African and Asian elephants look much alike, there are several physical characteristics that distinguish them from one another. African elephants are larger in size, have bigger fan-like ears and have a single hump on their forehead, a sway back, more wrinkled skin and a trunk that has two finger-like projections at its tip, one at the top, one at the bottom.
Male and female African elephants grow large tusks; male Asian elephants usually have smaller tusks and tusks of Asian females are not visible beyond the lips. Tusks are elongated upper incisors, one on each side of the jaw. They begin to appear at age two, and grow throughout the animal's lifetime. Tusks are used for fighting, pushing, lifting and digging for water.
African elephants live in socially complex 'family units' comprising of related adult cows and their immature offspring. A family unit usually comprises of eight to 10 animals and is led by the matriarch, usually the oldest, largest, dominant cow. During times of danger, such as severe drought or intense poaching, many family units will come together to form a large herd comprised of 500-1,000 individuals.
When young male elephants reach puberty at around 12-15 years of age, they become more independent and strike out on their own or are driven out by the family unit's females. At this time, males either roam alone or gather together to form small, loosely bonded "bachelor" herds, from which they come and go at will. Bulls temporarily rejoin female-centered units, especially when females are sexually receptive. As male elephants reach sexual maturity, they experience a phenomenon called musth (pronounced "must"); in Hindi, musth means 'intoxicated.' During musth, a bull's testosterone blood level skyrockets, and he becomes dangerously aggressive, unpredictable and highly competitive with other bulls for females. Females appear to prefer males in musth for mating.
The African elephant is an endangered species. This is due to poaching for ivory and loss of habitat. Where elephants once roamed over millions of square miles of habitat, today they are restricted to overcrowded parks and reserves. Although there are an estimated 500,000 African elephants left in the wild today, their future survival in the wild hangs in the balance. Most older and larger elephants have been killed for ivory and sport. Elephants reach their physical and mental prime at about 40 years of age, but today their average age has dropped to 24 years old.
Woodland Park Zoo has joined other zoos to help preserve and protect these magnificent animals by participating in the Association of Zoos & Aquariums' (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) for Asian and African elephants. To enhance the captive breeding of Asian elephants, zoos are working toward constructing more facilities capable of handling adult bull elephants. Learn more about elephant conservation.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save endangered species requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Please do not buy products made from wild animal parts or exotic woods. Contact your elected representatives and express your views about conservation of endangered species and wild habitats.
Contact Woodland Park Zoo at firstname.lastname@example.org find out other ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Eltringham, S. K. Dr. 1991. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Elephants. Crescent Books, New York, NY. 188 p.
Patent, Dorothy H. 1991. African Elephant: Giants of the Land. Holiday House, New York, NY.
Sobol, Richard. 1995. One More Elephant: The Fight to Save Wildlife in Uganda. Cobblehill/Dutton, New York, NY. 31p.
Redmond, Ian. 1995. Gorilla. Alfred A Knopf Inc., New York, NY. 63 p.
Zoobooks. 1994. Apes. Wildlife Education Ltd., San Diego, CA. 18 p.