The African elephant is the largest and most powerful of all living land mammals. Essentially an animal of the open grassland, it is also sufficiently adaptable to live quite happily in a variety of habitats within its sub-Saharan homeland.

African elephant behavior

African elephants are social creatures with strong family ties. So close can these relationships be that they find it extremely difficult to leave a dead companion. In fact, like humans, African elephants will grieve over the loss of a family member, staying by the 'grave' for many hours after the death.

Female African elephants and their young (calves) live in family units, under the leadership of a mature female (the matriarch)  to whom every member of the group is related.

The young bull elephants are driven out of the family group when they reach puberty. They then join together to live in separate bachelor herds. Adult bulls live alone and are only briefly permitted to enter a family unit when a female member is ready to breed.

Although these African elephant herds may wander great distances, they are never too far away from water. As well as drinking, African elephants have a fondness for bathing which they like to enjoy every evening.

In the dry season, when many rivers would have dried up and water holes become evermore scarce, African elephants generally have to make do with a shower. This is achieved by sucking what water there is into their trunks, and squirting it over themselves.

After bathing they 'dust' their wet skin with dry soil. This coating of dust or mud then helps to protect their skin from the ceaseless and irritating attacks by biting insects. It also helps to keep their skin moist and protect them from the damaging effects of exposure to strong sunlight.

What do African elephants eat?

African elephants are entirely vegetarian, and eat a wide variety of grasses, foliage, small branches, twigs and various fruits. They tear at these, gathering them in their trunks, ready to stuff into their mouths.

The few teeth that African elephants have (four at any one time with around 6 replacements sets during its lifetime) are used to grind the food before swallowing.

Once the elephant has lost all of its teeth it will be unable to feed itself and will die of starvation - usually at about 70 years of age.

Not surprisingly, African elephants have enormous appetites and need a large intake of food to satisfy them. Nighttime and early morning and evening are favorite eating and drinking times, but African elephants will also happily graze whilst on the move. They are quite capable of snatching at clumps of grass and leaves without pausing in their stride, or reducing their speed of pace.


African elephants will mate when they are about 14 or 15 years old. Their courtship involves a display of affection between the cow and the bull in which they use their trunks to caress one another. Normally a single calf, weighing about 110 kg is born 22 months later.

The calf is suckled for at least two years - sometimes longer, and will remain as part of the family unit after the birth of the mother's next calf. A cow usually gives birth every four years and will often have two or three calves with her at the same time ranging from newborn to eight or even twelve years old.

The female African elephant will defend her young vigorously. In fact, if she feels that her calves are being threatened, she will charge at the intruder. As the calves grow older, then older females in the family will muck in and also help to look after them.

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