The African elephant belongs to the genus Loxodonta of the family Elephantidae. The other species of this family is the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), which belongs to the genus Elephas. There are two species of African elephants - savanna/bush elephants and forest elephants. African elephants are bigger than Asian elephants, and savanna elephants Loxodonta africanaare bigger, when compared to forest elephants Loxodonta cyclotis.
African elephants, who are the largest mammals on land, are listed as endangered species by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). According to CITES, both the species are endangered; and except the populations of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, others are in Appendix I. Those populations that exhibited signs of recovery were moved from Appendix I to Appendix II, during 1997. Loss of habitat and poaching are said to be the reasons for the dwindling population of these animals in the wild.
Physical Features and Habitat
The features that distinguish African elephants from their Asian counterparts are their large ears and bigger size. African elephants are less hairy and have a concave back. Both males and females have tusks, whereas only males have tusks in Asian elephants. These elephants have two fingers at the end of their trunk, but Asian elephants have only one. The trunk is the elongated upper lip and nose, with the nostrils at the tip. African elephants are not domesticated, like Asian elephants.
Male African elephants have a shoulder height of up to 3.64 meters, and the females can grow to a height of 3 meters. The body length ranges between 6 to 7.5 meters in males, whereas in females, it would be 5.4 to 6.9 meters. While males attain a weight of up to 5,455 kilograms, females weigh between 3,636 kg to 4,545 kilograms. Most of these animals have a brownish-gray skin. A single tusk (incisor tooth of the upper jaw) of an African elephant weighs between 22 to 45 kilograms, with a maximum length of 2.5 meters. The bush/savanna elephants have four toenails on front feet and three on hind feet; whereas forest elephants have five toes on front feet and four on hind feet. Compared to savanna elephants, forest elephants are smaller, and have straighter and thinner tusks that bend downwards. They have narrow jawbones and their ears are more rounded.
Savanna elephants are found in open grasslands, marshes, and lake shores in the savanna zone located towards the south of Sahara; whereas forest elephants live in deep rainforests of central and western Africa. Sometimes, they come out of their respective habitats by mistake, and this results in interbreeding.
Food and Behavior
Elephants are herbivores. They feed on grass, fruits, bark, and roots. An adult African elephant can consume up to 200 kilograms of food in a single day. They sleep for a very short time, so that they can cover more area in search of food.
Females move around in herds. Each herd consists of around ten members with their young ones, and is supervised by the matriarchal head (the oldest and largest female). On reaching puberty, male members leave their herd and roam by themselves. Normally, they mate during rainy season. Usually, the females breed by the age of 10, and give birth to a calf every four years, after a gestation period of 22 months. The newborn weighs around 100 kilograms, and usually have a height of around a meter. An average African elephant can live around 60 years in the wild.
These elephants communicate through moans, rumbles, growls, and trumpets. It is said that, they produce a variety of low-frequency sounds, which can travel beyond a distance of one mile. These messages are received by the other members, through the skin on their feet and trunk. The ears of these animals help them in radiating heat. If the heat is unbearable, they tend to suck water through their trunk and shower it all over the body. A coat of mud is sprayed on the body for an extra effect.
African elephants are endangered species, according to the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). They are enlisted as 'vulnerable', by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). As mentioned above, CITES has also enlisted them as endangered species.
Profuse hunting by humans for ivory, is one of the main reasons for the dwindling population of African elephants. Deforestation and human encroachment, are some of the other factors that led to the loss of their habitat. Another reason is drought, which resulted in the death of young ones. However, the main reason is poaching, which led to the flourishing ivory trade across the globe. In 1989, an ivory ban was implemented, along with strict anti-poaching measures. This resulted in a rise in the number of elephants; in some countries, like Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia. These countries witnessed an increased agricultural loss and more conflicts between the locals and these animals. Hence, elephants in these countries were downlisted from Appendix I to Appendix II of CITES. This facilitated managed trade in elephants and elephant parts.
Despite the strict anti-poaching measures and restrictions on ivory trade, hunting of these animals continues. They have also lost a major part of their habitat, and are now found mostly in protected forest areas. Let us hope for some improvement in the revival of the African elephant population.