The African savannah elephant is the largest land mammal in the world. A mature bull elephant may stand up to 13 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 14,000 pounds. The most noticeable distinction between African savannah and forest elephants is size: The savannah is larger and has bigger and more curved tusks. Asian elephants have much smaller ears than both African species and usually, only the male Asian elephant sports tusks.
African savannah elephants have large home ranges, spanning hundreds of square miles. As they move, they push over trees to get to their branches and roots, helping maintain the grasslands, and they use their tusks and trunks to dig for water, creating pools that many other animals need to survive. These elephants are important dispersers of seeds through their consumption of fruit.
In folklore, elephants are known for not forgetting. For the African savannah elephant, memory is a tool for surviving challenges that may come intermittently over decades. Long-term memory tends to be vested in the older females, called matriarchs, without which the herd could die of starvation or dehydration. During the drought of 1993 in Tanzania, elephant matriarchs that remembered a similar drought 35 years before led their herds beyond the borders of Tarangire National Park in search of food and water. Groups with matriarchs that were not old enough to remember the previous drought suffered a 63 percent mortality of their calves that year. Unfortunately, these large females are the most attractive targets for ivory poachers. The animals tend to have the largest tusks, and they may be easier to find than the males.
Elephants play a crucial ecological role in their habitats. They dig pools of water that many other animals depend on; they open forest trails and clearings. Accomplished gardeners, they disperse seeds over many miles, making way for new life to grow. In Central Africa, the tropical forests they help maintain are among our most important resources to fight climate change.
Scientific Name Loxodonta africana
Elephants have complex social behavior. When a member of the herd dies, they cover the body with grass and dirt and stay near the site for several hours.
African savannah elephants communicate across great distances at low frequencies that cannot be heard by humans.
An elephant herd consists of related females and their young and is managed by the eldest female. Adult male elephants rarely join a herd and lead a solitary life, only approaching herds during mating season.
African savannah elephants may live up to 70 years in the wild, longer than any other mammals except humans.
An elephant’s trunk has more than 40,000 muscles and tendons. The trunk can lift large objects, yet its sensitive tip can manipulate very small things.
Habitat loss and poaching are the biggest concerns for the survival of elephants. As the human footprint has grown in Africa, elephant habitats have been converted to farmland, deforested by industrial logging and mining, and otherwise developed by roads and settlements. Poachers kill elephants for their ivory and meat, and farmers sometimes kill them to protect their crops, which elephants often raid. The IUCN lists African savannah elephant populations as Vulnerable.
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) works throughout much of the elephant’s remaining habitat to monitor and manage populations and find novel approaches to reduce human-elephant conflict. One way to decrease elephant raids on human crops is to help farmers devise methods of keeping elephants away. Such examples include using chili pepper smoke or chili pepper spray blasted from guns, which serves as a noxious airborne deterrent. WCS supports the Elephant Pepper Development Trust, a program that sells hot sauce grown from alternative pepper crops to aid local farmers and elephant protection efforts.
Wildlife Conservation Society, along with numerous partners are part of a new global movement to protect Africa’s elephants. We were humbled to contribute to this effort through the creation of 96Elephants.org — a site to spread awareness and action to protect this noble species.
As poachers target the older matriarchs for their large tusks, a generation of young, orphaned African elephants is growing up without guidance. The consequences can be deadly. During Tanzania’s drought of 1993, matriarchs that endured a similar event decades earlier knew where to lead their herds for food and water. Groups with matriarchs too young to remember the previous drought lost more than half of their calves that year.
WCS has been supporting elephant studies in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park—one of the best parks in Africa to see large herds of calm elephants. Our main goals there are to protect migration routes and dispersal areas beyond the park’s relatively safe boundaries and to work with local Maasai and tourism operators to accomplish this.
Working with local governments to curtail poaching, WCS undertook a fundraising effort to support game wardens in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The wardens suffered attacks by armed militias who were poaching elephants in the park. WCS also sounded the alarm when poachers with automatic rifles killed 2,000 savannah elephants in Chad’s Zakouma National Park. WCS subsequently established a fund to help save the park’s surviving elephants, numbering fewer than 1,000. A WCS pilot and light aircraft that are based in Zakouma continually provide information to Chad’s park service about poaching activities and elephant herd locations.