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Elephant drinking water at waterhole in South Africa
© Derek Keats / Flickr

The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest land mammal in the world and one of nature’s great ecosystem engineers, being a major contributor to maintaining the balance between wooded and grass ecosystems. Their beneficial impact on biodiversity in large unfenced ecosystems and their potentially negative impact on same in fenced environments, make them a key species in Africa.

Here are 17 facts about African elephants that you need to know:

1. There are about 50,000 muscles in an elephant’s trunk, made up of six muscle groups, and no bones. This compares to 639 muscles in the entire human body! The closest thing we have to an elephant’s trunk is our tongue. Elephants use their trunks to breath, drink, eat, smell, snorkel, wrestle, communicate, touch, feel, hold, grab and pull. We can’t think of any other appendage that is so versatile.

2. Elephants cannot jump, gallop or canter. They can only walk at various speeds – from a slow walk to a moderate ‘amble’ and fast shuffling ‘run’ where their stride remains the same but the leg speed increases. Their top speed is about 24 km/hr. For more information, read our article Can elephants run, or do they just walk faster?

3. Elephants are either left or right ‘handed’. They are born not knowing how to use their trunks and learn as they grow. Like humans, they show a preference between grasping objects to the left or right. You can tell which side elephants prefer – tusks are shorter on the preferred side (because they get worn down more on that side).

Baby elephant with mother at waterhole in Punda Maria, Kruger National Park, South Africa
© Derek Keats / Flickr

4. The elephant’s sense of smell is estimated to be four times that of a bloodhound or 160 times that of a human. They can smell water from many kilometres away.

5. Many tree species rely on elephants to spread their seeds. But that is not all. Many seeds are more likely to germinate having passed through an elephant’s gut. Elephants transport these seeds for many kilometres as they process their food, before depositing them in their dung balls – a vital fertiliser and moisture package for those seeds, and a kick-starter to life.

6. During the dry season, elephants provide access to water for other species. They dig holes in dry riverbeds to get to deep water – opening the water up for other species not able to dig. They also enlarge, and compact mud wallows to form large pans that fill up with water – again providing water for other species.

Elephant herd at waterhole in Punda Maria, Kruger National Park, South Africa
© Derek Keats / Flickr

7. Elephants are the heaviest land mammals, at 4 to 7 tons, and the second tallest land mammal (behind the giraffe) at 3,1 to 3,4 metres at the shoulder. The largest elephant on record weighed 10,9 tons and was 3,9 metres at the shoulder.

8. Elephant herds are led by older cows (matriarchs), with young bulls forming their own smaller herds after leaving the breeding herd. Old bulls often roam on their own, or with a few companions (often referred to as askaris), meeting up with breeding herds as cows come into season.

9. Elephants live for 50 to 70 years. Bulls only start contributing to the gene pools at 35 to 40 years old and cows start breeding at 12 to 14 years old. Cows undergo the longest gestation period of all mammals – they are pregnant for 22 months.

10. Bull elephants periodically go into musth, when testosterone levels are up to 60 times higher than normal. Symptoms include unpredictable and aggressive behaviour, urine dripping from the penis, discharge from the temporal glands behind the eyes and a strong odour.

11. Elephants grieve their dead and carry out ritual greetings at old carcasses – covering bodies of deceased elephants in plants and frequently visiting old carcasses to linger, gently touch and pick up bones. They also exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Elephant bull drinking water at Punda Maria, Kruger National Park, South Africa
© Derek Keats / Flickr

12. Bull elephants have internal testes, much like the rock hyrax – a rodent-like mammal and close relative to the elephant.

13. Elephants can detect seismic signals via their feet, through the leg and shoulder bones and into the middle ear. They communicate with each other over distances up to 10 km via low-frequency rumbles, again picked up via the feet.

14. Elephants starve to death once their teeth wear out. They produce six sets of teeth in their lives, with each set pushing forward from the back of the jaw to replace worn teeth at the front. After six such sets, elephants run out of teeth, cannot chew food, lose condition and either fall prey to disease or predators or starve to death. Contrasts this with humans, where one set of adult teeth is produced from the top and bottom of the jaw, to replace the original set of baby teeth.

Close up of an elephant's foot in Punda Maria, Kruger National Park, South Africa
© Derek Keats / Flickr

15. An adult elephant requires up to 300kg of food and 160 litres of water per day.

16. African elephants are listed as CITES I (threatened with extinction) in all African countries except for Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, where they are listed as CITES II (not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled to avoid utilisation incompatible with their survival).

17. On average, 96 elephants are poached every day for their ivory – out of an estimated total population of 350,000 savanna elephants. The population of savanna elephants declined by 8% per annum during the years 2007 to 2014. It is estimated that there are only 25 to 30 ‘tuskers’ left (bulls with tusk weight of more than 45 kg on each side), with poachers and trophy hunters threatening the remaining individual elephants. Read more about tuskers in our online magazine feature Africa’s big tuskers.

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