African elephants

Elephants continue to roam across Africa, but these magnificent beasts remain under threat from poaching and habitat loss.


 


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African elephant (Loxodonta africana) family group crossing the Masai Mara savanna, Kenya  rel=
African elephant (Loxodonta africana) family group crossing the Masai Mara savanna, Kenya
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

Key Facts

  • Common Name

    African elephant

  • Scientific Name

    Loxodonta africana spp

  • Status

    Vulnerable

    More

  • Population

    470,000 - 690,000 individuals

Secure when protected

Elephant populations across Africa are faring differently, with some remaining endangered and others now secure. Southern Africa is the stronghold for the species, with large and expanding populations.

Significant elephant populations are nevertheless confined to well-protected areas, which form only a fraction of total elephant range.

The species remains threatened by illegal hunting for meat and ivory, habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. Most range states do not have adequate capacity to protect and manage their herds. If conservation action is not forthcoming, elephants may become locally extinct in some parts of Africa within 50 years.

Physical description

African elephants are the world's largest terrestrial animals. The trunk, an extension of the upper lip and nose, is used for communication and handling objects including food. African elephants have 2 opposing extensions at its end, in contrast to the Asian elephant which only has one. 

Tusks, which are large modified incisors that grow throughout an elephant's lifetime, occur in both males and females and are used in fights and for marking, feeding, and digging.

The other notable feature of African elephants is their very large ears, which allow them to radiate excess heat. 

Two subspecies are recognized:
  • Savanna (or bush) elephant (Loxodonta africana africana)
  • Forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis)

Savanna elephants are larger than forest elephants, and their tusks curve outwards. In addition to being smaller, forest elephants are darker and their tusks are straighter and downward pointing. There are also differences in the size and shape of the skull and skeleton between the two subspecies.

Size: 6–7.5m in length; shoulder height of 3.3m; 6 tonnes in weight

Colour: Brownish gray
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
African elephant Loxodonta africana
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

ELEPHANT INFOGRAPHIC

 / ©: WWF
What's at stake?

Two subspecies, two homes 

The African savanna elephant is found throughout the grassy plains and bushlands of the continent, while the African forest elephant lives the equatorial forests of central and western Africa. 

Social structure
The complex social structure of elephants is organized around a system of herds composed of related females and their calves.

In the savanna subspecies, each family unit usually contains about 10 individuals, although several family units may join together to form a 'clan' consisting of up to 70 members led by a female. Forest elephants live in smaller family units.

Herds can form temporary aggregations reaching over 1,000 individuals, mainly in East Africa. These associations occur during drought, human interference, or any change brought to the normal pattern of social life.

When threatened, elephants will group around young calves and the matriarch, the leader of the group, may attack the foe. Young elephants stay with their mother for many years and are also cared for by other females in the group.

Life cycle
Usually, a single calf is born every 2.5-9 years at the onset of the wet season, after a gestation period of 22 months.

Young elephants wean after 6 to 18 months, although they may continue nursing for over 6 years. Male elephants leave their natal group at puberty and tend to form much more fluid alliances with other males.

This species lives up to around 70 years, with females mostly fertile between 25 and 45. Males need to reach 20 years of age in order to successfully compete for mating.

Diet
African elephants mainly eat leaves and branches of bushes and trees, but also eat grasses, fruit, and bark.

Population & distribution

Former population & distribution
The African elephant once ranged across most of the African continent from the Mediterranean coast to the southern tip. It is thought there may have been as many as 3-5 million African elephants in the 1930s and 1940s.

However, in the wake of intensive hunting for trophies and tusks, elephant numbers fell dramatically throughout the continent from the 1950s. In the 1980s, for example, an estimated 100,000 elephants were being killed per year and up to 80% of herds were lost in some regions. In Kenya, the population plummeted by 85% between 1973 and 1989.

Current population & distribution

The forest elephant is found in the tropical rainforest zone of west and central Africa, where relatively large blocks of dense forest remain.

The savanna elephant occurs in eastern and southern Africa, with the highest densities found in Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa.

Elephant numbers vary greatly over the 37 range states: some populations remain endangered, while others are now secure.

For example, most countries in West Africa count their elephants in tens or hundreds, with animals scattered in small blocks of isolated forest; probably only three countries in this region have more than 1,000 animals.

In contrast, elephant populations in southern Africa are large and expanding, with some 300,000 elephants now roaming across the sub-region.

Significant elephant populations are now confined to well-protected areas. However, less than 20% of elephant range is under formal protection.

Habitat

Major habitat type
Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests, Flooded Grasslands and Savannahs, Miombo woodlands, Acacia savannahs

Biogeographic realm
Afrotropical

Range States
Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, United Republic of Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Geographical Location
Africa

Ecological Region
Guinean Moist Forests, Congolian Coastal Forests, Cameroon Highlands Forests, Congo Basin Moist Forests, Albertine Rift Montane Forests, East African Coastal Forests, Horn of Africa Acacia Savannahs, East African Acacia Savannahs, Central and Eastern Miombo Woodlands, Sudanian Savannahs, Sudd-Sahelian Flooded Grasslands and Savannahs, Zambezian Flooded Savannas, Southern Rift Montane Woodlands, East African Moorlands, Namib-Karoo-Kaokoveld Deserts.
 / ©: IUCN African Elephant Red List
IUCN African Elephant Red List Range Map
© IUCN African Elephant Red List

What is WWF doing?

We have identified 5 issues that need to be addressed in order to conserve African elephants and diminish the factors that threaten them: 
  • Slowing the loss of natural habitat
     
  • Strengthening activities against poachers and the illegal ivory trade
     
  • Reducing conflict between human and elephant populations
     
  • Determining the status of elephant populations through improved surveys
     
  • Enhancing the capacity of local wildlife authorities to conserve and manage elephants

» WWF African Elephant Programme

Elephant collaring in Cameroon

How you can help

Make a donation

Virtual Gifts

Virtual Gifts / ©: WWF

Did you know?

    • African elephants care for wounded individuals and are unique in that they identify and look after elephant bones.
       
    • African elephants are the world's largest terrestrial animals.

Infographic

  •  The WWF Wildlife Crime Scorecard report selects 23 range, transit and consumer countries from Asia and Africa facing the highest levels of illegal trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts.

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