Elephant facts – all you need to know about the African elephant [Africa’s big 5 series]

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

I am steering the rental car around the bend on a curvy and hilly road in the idyllic landscape of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve at a rough 25 kilometres per hour. The ideal speed to spot some wildlife on this self-drive safari is also well adapted to stop abruptly! This time it’s not one of the many dung beetles or tortoises crossing. A massive male elephant blocks the road about 30 meters in front of me. I swallow as I see how the elephant stares at me motionless. I try to reverse to only find cars behind me blocking me. The elephant gets a bit closer; I hold my breath. He sways his trunk from the left to the right, flaps his ears, sets one more step in my direction before turning his back at me and deciding to take a bath in the river!

Large elephant with white tusks shaking off dust in South Africa.

In this series of five articles we feature the big 5 – Africa’s most dangerous mammals to encounter in the wild, in this article you will learn more about elephants!

Did you know that there are 3 elephant species?

There are three different species of elephants: the Asian elephant, the African bush elephant which is also called the African savanna elephant and the smaller and darker African forest elephant. For years it was taken for granted that the African forest elephant and African bush elephant were related but recent studies show that they are two distinct species of which their genetic divergence dates back between 2.6 to 5.6 million years ago. In this article we focus on world’s largest land mammal: the African bush elephant.

Where to find African elephants in the wild [habitat]

The African bush elephant lives in Sub-Sahara Africa. Its habitat varies from temperate and subtropical forests to grasslands, woodlands, deserts, wetlands and even agricultural land. Countries that encompass their habitat are: Uganda, Kenya, Mali, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Namibia, Zambia and Angola. In South Africa the African bush elephants can only be found in game parks such as Addo Elephant National Park, Kruger National Park, Hluhluwe iMfolozi and Phinda Private Game Reserve.

How many African elephants are there left in the wild?

While in 1900 there were still an estimated 12 million African bush elephants roaming around, their numbers today have dropped down to about 350,000 – a decrease of 97% in just over a century! A total estimated between 130,000 and 293,000 (the exact number is hard to determine as elephants move freely across the borders with neighbouring countries) of them live in Botswana. They fled poaching hotspots in other African countries with more civil unrest and less protection. For years Botswana has been considered a safe haven for elephants due to their zero tolerance towards poachers. However, since 2014, poaching has increased by more than 500% with an estimated 400 elephants slaughtered yearly. The Covid-19 pandemic worsens poaching heavily due to the absence of tourists patrolling the parks, the loss of tourism money that pays anti-poaching units and the rise of unemployment of local communities. This is becoming alarming for the world’s elephant population: the African bush elephants is indicated as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of endangered species.

How tall is an elephant?

An African bush elephant bull can almost reach up to 4 metres (13 feet) at shoulder but 3.2 metres tall is considered the average while cows (females) average a shoulder height of 2.2 to 2.6 metres (7.2 to 8.5 feet).

How large are elephant herds?

Elephant herd sizes vary greatly from their type of habitat, climate and family size. A herd contains females and their young ones and can be anywhere between 8 to up to 100 individuals. The herd is led by the matriarch, the oldest and tallest female who makes the decision of where to go for food and water. She leads the multi-generational herd for years. Bulls come in and out when they are ready to mate and often live a solitary life or live in small herds with other bulls.

How do elephants reproduce and take care of their little ones?

African bush elephants become sexually mature when they are 12 to 15 years old. Female elephants get into oestrus (heat) for a few days a year. Bulls smell this and they are never far from each other during this time of the year, often during the rainy season. The female mates several times with the bull that will stay with her for a few days to fight other bulls. She often chooses an older, strong bull to reproduce. As the bull plays no role in raising his offspring he wanders off. The gestation period last for 22 months, the longest in the animal kingdom. While giving birth, often to one offspring, family members of the herd get very excited and they take care of the mother and they help her raising her young one. Sometimes, elephants even nurture offspring that is not their own. The baby elephant stays in the herd and in case it is a male, it will wander off when puberty kicks in at the age of 13.

Life expectancy

Elephants live up to 70 years in the wild.

Feeding habits

Elephants eat between 100 to 300 kilograms (220 to 660 pounds) of grass, roots, fruits and bark per day. When you spot them, chances are they will be eating! They are always on the move while foraging. Elephants sometimes use their tusks to dig for food and to strip bark from trees. An elephant herd passage is easy to spot as the vegetation takes a serious hit – so serious that this leads to environmental concerns in Botswana.

Elephants can drink up to 200 litres (53 gallons) of water per day.

Elephant South Africa 1

Elephants & water

Elephants absolutely love water. They can only go four days without it. When at a waterhole they often take up a few litres with their trunk to then splash it over themselves to stay cool. They use their trunks to suck the water up to then put it in their mouth to drink and they regularly bathe.

Did you know elephants can communicate through their feet?

Apart from the characteristic trumpeting sounds that elephants make when they are very excited, mad, surprised or scared, elephants communicate at different levels. They have their private communication channel of infrasound, or low-frequency sounds that they can communicate through for up to 10 kilometres (6.2 miles). Actually, this infrasound can even be picked up through their feet about 100 kilometres (62 miles) away to help them find each other.

Elephants use their body language as well to communicate with each other and with other species. To show they are not happy, their tail points up, or is stiff in one direction, their eyes get wide, they make flapping sounds with their ears while rolling their head backwards, they smack their trunk against the soil or they trumpet.

Signs that the elephant is relaxed look more like having their eyes half closed, a wanking tail and caressing of other elephants of the herd with its trunk.

Elephants greeting ritual, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Encounters: do’s & don’ts

  • An elephant’s bubble is about 30 meters (98 feet). Do not get nearer than this and observe the behaviour of the animals. Is it relaxed? Enjoy these magic moments. Is it stressed out? Back off!
  • Make sure to quickly assess where other herd members are to not end up being in the middle of the herd.
  • Keep your voice low to not scare them.

Elephants young and old drinking by a waterhole in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Note: All photographs were taken in the wild in South Africa and are available in high definition upon request. All rights reserved.

Travel tips:

  • To choose a type of safari that suits you the best, check out the following article.
  • Ready for an exclusive safari experience while supporting conservation efforts read about Phinda Private Game Reserve.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

Like it? Pin it!

Herd of elephants drinking at a waterhole, two baby elephants taking a bath and a male elephant walking in the savanna

For more safari-inspired articles, click on these images:

Blonde ranger in a game drive vehicle observing lions, a lion cub in the grass, a cheetah at sunset and a black rhino. Lion Sanctuaries 2 - Pinterest Pin - South Africa(2) Pin with close up of a zebra and African animals referring to the best webcam virtual safaris &Beyond Phinda Private game reserve - Pinterest - Pin 3 - South Africa Drinking lions looking into the camer, young zebra, colourful bird and hippo with open mouth. Pin with original photographs of wild lions taken during safaris in Africa and 8 facts to help you spot lions in the wild

2 thoughts on “Elephant facts – all you need to know about the African elephant [Africa’s big 5 series]

  1. What an informative and wonderfully detailed post. I love the question/answer format, and the info is quite welcome. I’ve only been on one safari, but I definitely wish I had had this post before I went. Thanks for marvelous photos as well. This is a treasure.

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