What is the African elephant?
African elephants are the largest land animals on Earth. They are slightly larger than their Asian cousins and can be identified by their larger ears that look somewhat like the continent of Africa. (Asian elephants have smaller, rounded ears.)
Although they were long grouped together as one species, scientists have determined that there are actually two species of African elephants—and that both are at risk of extinction. Savanna elephants are larger animals that roam the plains of sub-Saharan Africa, while forest elephants are smaller animals that live in the forests of Central and West Africa. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists savanna elephants as endangered and forest elephants as critically endangered.
African elephants are keystone species, meaning they play a critical role in their ecosystem. Also known as “ecosystem engineers,” elephants shape their habitat in many ways. During the dry season, they use their tusks to dig up dry riverbeds and create watering holes many animals can drink from. Their dung is full of seeds, helping plants spread across the environment—and it makes pretty good habitat for dung beetles too. In the forest, their feasting on trees and shrubs creates pathways for smaller animals to move through, and in the savanna, they uproot trees and eat saplings, which helps keep the landscape open for zebras and other plains animals to thrive.
Trunks and tusks
Elephant ears radiate heat to help keep these large animals cool, but sometimes the African heat is too much. Elephants are fond of water and enjoy showering by sucking water into their trunks and spraying it all over themselves. Afterwards, they often spray their skin with a protective coating of dust.
An elephant’s trunk is actually a long nose used for smelling, breathing, trumpeting, drinking, and also for grabbing things—especially a potential meal. The trunk alone contains about 40,000 muscles. African elephants have two fingerlike features on the end of their trunk that they can use to grab small items. (Asian elephants have just one.)
Both male and female African elephants have tusks, which are continuously growing teeth. Savanna elephants have curving tusks, while the tusks of forest elephants are straight. They use these tusks to dig for food and water and strip bark from trees. Males, whose tusks tend to be larger than females’, also use their tusks to battle one another.
Elephants eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark. An adult elephant can consume up to 300 pounds of food in a single day. These hungry animals do not sleep much, roaming great distances while foraging for the large quantities of food that they require to sustain their massive bodies.
African elephants range throughout the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa and the rainforests of Central and West Africa. The continent’s northernmost elephants are found in Mali’s Sahel Desert. The small, nomadic herd of Mali elephants migrates in a circular route through the desert in search of water.
Because elephants eat so much, they’re increasingly coming into contact with humans. An elephant can destroy an entire season of crops in a single night. A number of conservation programs work with farmers to help them protect their crops and provide compensation when an elephant does raid them.
Elephants are matriarchal, meaning they live in female-led groups. The matriarch is usually the biggest and oldest. She presides over a multi-generational herd that includes other females, called cows, and their young. Adult males, called bulls, tend to roam on their own, sometimes forming smaller, more loosely associated all-male groups.
Having a baby elephant is a serious commitment. Elephants have a longer pregnancy than any other mammal—almost 22 months. Cows usually give birth to one calf every two to four years. At birth, elephants already weigh some 200 pounds and stand about three feet tall.
Threats to survival
Poaching for the illegal ivory trade is the biggest threat to African elephants’ survival. Before the Europeans began colonizing Africa, there may have been as many as 26 million elephants. By the early 20th century, their numbers had dropped to 10 million. Hunting continued to increase. By 1970, their numbers were down to 1.3 million. Between 1970 and 1990, hunting and poaching put the African elephant at risk of extinction, reducing its population by another half.
In the years since, poaching has continued to threaten both species: Savanna elephants declined by 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, while forest elephants declined by 64 percent from 2002 to 2011 as poaching worsened in Central and West Africa. In 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature recognized them as separate species for the first time, listing savanna elephants as endangered and forest elephants as critically endangered. As few as 400,000 remain today.
Compounding the problem is how long it takes for elephants to reproduce. With reproduction rates hovering around 5 to 6 percent, there are simply not enough calves being born to make up for the losses from poaching.
African elephants are also losing their habitat as the human population grows and people convert land for agriculture and development. Elephants need a lot of room, so habitat destruction and fragmentation not only makes it harder for them to find food, water, and each other, but it also puts them in increased conflict with humans.
The decision to recognize African elephants as two separate species is seen as an important step for conservation, as it highlights the different challenges that each species faces. Scientists hope that the listing will bring more attention to forest elephants, which have often been overlooked by governments and donors when grouped together with more visible savanna elephants.
African elephants are protected to varying degrees in all the countries of their geographic range. They’re also protected under international environmental agreements, CITES and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species. There have been recent efforts to bring re-legalize the international trade in ivory, but those so far have failed.
Conservation groups and governments have worked to set aside land for wildlife—including corridors that connect those protected lands. Still, researchers believe that up to 70 percent of elephants’ range is on unprotected land.
To curb poaching, stopping the illegal trade is key. Advocates have launched campaigns that address both the supply side (poaching) and the demand side (people who buy ivory). There has been some progress in recent years, especially on the demand side: In 2015, China—believed to be the world’s biggest illegal and legal ivory market—agreed to a “near-complete” ban on the domestic trade of ivory. Since the ban went into effect, public demand for ivory seems to have fallen.
On the supply side, protecting elephants from poaching also requires a local approach. In 2019, a study showed that the suffering of elephants is tied to that of the humans living nearby: Regions with high levels of poverty and corruption are more likely to have higher poaching rates. This suggests that helping communities develop sustainable livelihoods could reduce the lure of poaching.