African elephants are the world’s largest land mammals, with males, on average, reaching up to 3m in height and weighing up to 6 tonnes.

Read Pritish Kumar Halder brief illustration of the African elephant life cycle, importance and subspecies.

Following population declines over several decades due to poaching for ivory and loss of habitat. The African forest elephant is now listed as critically endangered. African savanna elephant is also listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The number of African forest elephants fell by more than 86% over a period of 31 years, while the population of African savanna elephants decreased by at least 60% over the last 50 years, according to the assessments. Both species have suffered sharp declines since 2008 due to a significant increase in poaching. Which peaked in 2011 but continues to threaten populations. At present, there are around 415,000 African elephants in the wild.

Other major threats to both African elephant species include the ongoing conversion of their natural habitats for agriculture and other land uses.

African elephant

Physical description

African elephants are the world’s largest land animals. The biggest can be up to 7.5m long, 3.3m high at the shoulder, and 6 tonnes in weight.

The trunk is an extension of the upper lip and nose and is used for communication and handling objects, including food. African elephants have two opposing extensions at the end of their trunks, 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, two homes

There are two subspecies – the larger savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana africana), which roams grassy plains and woodland. And the smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), which lives in the equatorial forests of central and western Africa.

Savannah 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.

Social structure

The complex social structure of elephants is organized around a system of herds composed of related females and their calves. Males usually live alone but sometimes form small groups with other males.

In the savannah 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.

 Life cycle

Usually, a single calf is born 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.

Elephants live 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.

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


Elephants play an essential role in their environment. They’re ‘landscape architects’ – for instance as they move around and feed. They create clearings in wooded areas, which lets new plants grow and forests regenerate naturally.

And then there’s seed dispersal. When elephants eat seed-bearing plants and fruits, the seeds often re-emerge undigested. It’s the way a lot of plants spread. And elephants can eat big seeds that small animals can’t.

Without elephants, the natural structure and functioning of their landscapes would be very different. Which would have impacts on the other wildlife and the people who share that space.

Local people depend on natural resources found in elephant habitats, for example for food, fuel and income. As one of Africa’s wildlife ‘big five’, elephants are popular with tourists, which can be an important source of income for communities.

By helping protect elephants we’re also helping make sure their environment and its natural resources are available for generations to come.