The African elephant is one of our favourite animals, and every encounter we have with them is special and memorable. There’s just something so majestic in the confident swagger of the big bulls, so tender in the loving care of the cows and so playful in the antics of the calves.
Mature bulls weigh up to 6000kg and stand as high as 4m at the shoulder, while cows measure up to 3.4m high and weigh up to 4000kg. The forest elephant of Central Africa, a different race to those occuring here in South Africa, are much smaller.
The herd is the core of elephant society, and comprises an older, experienced, dominant female or matriarch, her sisters and daughters, and their calves of varying ages. Sometimes these smaller family units join up with others to create massive congregations of 200 or more animals. Elephants are active throughout the day and night, resting in the shade only during the hottest hours of the day, usually near water. Their intelligence is legendary and the close bonds between herd members, who look after their sick and dying kin as much as they can, has always been an inspiration to humans.
Mature bulls are mostly solitary, or accompanied by younger bulls known as “askaris”, and maintain a dominance hierarchy through threat displays and fights that would sometimes lead to the death of one of the combatants. After being forced from their maternal herds at the onset of puberty, around 15 years of age, bulls will only join up with the breeding herds again temporarily to mate.
Elephants are able to inhabit any habitat that has sufficient food, water and shade – they occur from the Namib Desert to Africa’s equatorial forests. They are big ecological drivers and a crucial component of the ecosystems in which they occur, having an immense impact on their environment. Their seemingly destructive feeding habits serves to prevent bush encroachment and provides niche habitats for a wide variety of smaller fauna. Consuming up to 300kg of plant material per day, the copious amounts of dung (about 100kg of dung per animal per day!) they produce provide an important source of food for a myriad of small animals, birds and insects. Elephants are not particularly fussy about what they eat and include herbs, grass, reeds, leaves, seeds, pods, bark, roots and branches in their diet, but they are rather fond of mopane trees and mlala palms. During times of drought, elephants will dig wells in apparently dry river beds, thus providing water not only for themselves but also for all other wildlife in the vicinity. An adult elephant requires between 150 and 300 liters of drinking water daily. After years of continuous use, elephant mudbaths are enlarged and transformed into pans and waterholes that hold water for extended periods into the dry season. Several of South Africa’s passes were built along tracks used by countless generations of elephants to cross our mountains.
Elephant cows give birth to single calves (twins are extremely rare) at any time of year, after a 22-month gestation period. The calves weigh about 120kg at birth an can stand within an hour of being born. They are weaned at the age of two years, by which time they’ve become quite adept at using their trunks to feed and drink water.
South Africa’s wild places is home to several “Big Tuskers“; elephant bulls carrying exceptionally long and heavy ivory. Many of them are named, and become tourist attractions in their own right; living monuments to South Africa’s proud conservation history. The longest tusks recorded in South Africa, 3.05m and 3.17m, belonged to Shawu, a tusker from the Kruger National Park that became famous as one of the “Magnificent Seven” in the 1970’s and ’80’s. The heaviest belonged to Mandleve, who died in 1993 and was also from Kruger, with a combined weight of over 142kg. Our biggest current tusker is Masthulele, a beautiful bull often encountered in the Kruger National Park.
Being one of Africa’s famed “Big 5“, elephants are a sought-after species for anyone visiting wildlife reserves where they occur. However, elephants are extremely dangerous and should be treated with the utmost respect. They can charge at speeds of between 40 and 50km/h, much faster than any human can run. Bulls in musth, a heightened state of aggressiveness fueled by elevated testosterone levels that drives their urge to mate and fight for dominance, are very irritable and will charge without much provocation. Mothers are extremely protective of their calves and you should never find yourself between a cow and her offspring. It is always best when viewing elephants to give them plenty of space and pay attention to any warning signs they may give: a head held high, ears held wide open, trunk tucked under the body, shaking the head and ears are all signs that you are too close and need to move away fast.
Adult elephants have little to fear from other animals, and lions and spotted hyenas are the only predators that realistically pose a threat to calves and juveniles. Most elephants succumb to fights, sickness, drought or old age. Old elephants spend most of their time feeding on green, soft vegetation along watercourses, due to them having worn our their last set of molars at about the age of 55 years, finding it increasingly difficult to feed on harder plant material. They then eventually die in these areas, possibly giving rise to the myth of an elephant graveyard.
The Kruger National Park protects South Africa’s biggest elephant population, and they are also a familiar sight in the Addo Elephant National Park, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Mapungubwe National Park, Pilanesberg National Park and Tembe Elephant Park. Smaller populations have also been established on several other state and private reserves. The tiny population in the Knysna Forests in the Garden Route National Park has fascinated South Africans for decades, with lots of speculation and theories about just how many continue to roam there. Today, elephants in Africa and Asia are faced with the threats of escalating poaching, habitat loss and various other conflicts with humans. With an estimated 100 African elephants killed daily for the illegal ivory trade in Asian markets, their population is in rapid decline. World Elephant Day was launched on August 12th, 2012, to bring attention to the plight of these iconic animals, and has been observed annually since.