The African elephant has two sub-species, the African bush elephant and the African forest elephant, where the former is the larger one, and stands up to 24 feet in length and 13 feet in height. It can weigh between 6,000 and 9,000 kg (13,228 - 19,843 lb). Male bush elephants are larger than the females. These animals cover great distances at a leisurely pace, but are known to reach speeds of up to 40 km/h (25 mph) when alarmed or upset.
Their prominent features are a large head and two large ears that cover the shoulders. The ears have a fan-like structure, and are used to dissipate heat from the body. The muscular trunk is very strong and capable of lifting up to 600 pounds. There are two finger-like projections on the tip of the trunk that are so deft that they can pick a blade of grass. The downfall of many of these elephants are their much sought-after tusks. Each elephant has two large tusks which are about 8 feet long. The tusks are better developed in males. A short neck, a large barrel-like body, four tree trunk-like legs, and a short wispy tail make up the rest of the body. Its thick rough skin is gray brown in color, and is unevenly covered with short black stands of hair.
As one may rightly guess, it takes a lot of food to sustain this gigantic animal. This species is herbivorous and feeds vegetation like leaves, roots, bark, grass, and fruits. Like most animals, their diet depends on the available vegetation in their habitat. During the rainy season, they eat grass and herbs, while in the dry season, the Savannah only provides leaves on thorny trees and bushes. They consume an average of 225 kg of vegetable matter daily, and can drink close to 200 liters of water per day.
They use their trunks to break off leaves and four large molars to chew them. Each molar is 10 cm wide and 30 cm long, and are replaced three times during their lifespan, after the previous set wears down. Old elephants often die of starvation from not being able to eat, due to loss of teeth.
Their clans comprise 9 to 11 elephants, who are led by the oldest female, called the matriarch. Only closely related females and their offspring are part of this herd. The herd will include male sons, but they leave and wander alone or in bachelor herds once they reach sexual maturity. They only approach the female herd during the mating season. At times, the clans intermingle, and this results in large herds of up to 200 elephants. The matriarch plays the role of a guide and caretaker, who watches out for the well-being of the herd. She guides them to water, and determines when they eat, rest, or bathe. The ties within the group are very strong. Females give birth every four to nine years, and a single elephant calf weighing about 265 pounds is born after a 22-month gestation period. Rearing of baby elephants is done collectively. When one elephant of the herd dies, the rest will stay by the corpse for a while. When the matriarch's capabilities dwindle due to old age, the next senior-most in the herd takes her place, while she is either abandoned or leaves by herself.
Elephants have one of the longest lifespans amongst all mammals―around seventy years. While they may die from diseases related to old age or an accident, deaths from poaching still outnumber any natural or accidental occurrences. Owning to its size, the African bush elephant has no natural predators. However, the calves are vulnerable to attacks by lions and crocodiles.
This species is currently designated as near threatened. A series of poaching incidents resulting in the killing of over 100 elephants took place during the late spring and summer of 2006 in the vicinity of Zakouma National Park. Poaching of elephants in this region has led to a population of approximately 10,000, from the 300,000 that inhabited this area in the 1970s. Though the African elephant is officially protected by the government in Chad, its efforts haven't been sufficient enough to deter poaching.
These elephants have a very important role to play in the ecosystem. However, constant human encroachment into their territory is slowly pushing them to the brink of extinction. Greater efforts need to be taken to preserve the diminishing numbers of these gentle giants of the land.