African elephants are the largest land animals on Earth and are known for their distinctive, large ears that resemble the continent of Africa. Although they were long grouped together as one species, scientists have determined that there are actually two species of African elephants: savanna elephants, which are larger animals that roam the plains of sub-Saharan Africa, and forest elephants, which 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.
Role as Keystone Species
African elephants are keystone species, meaning they play a critical role in their ecosystem. They are also known as ‘ecosystem engineers’ because they shape their habitat in many ways. During the dry season, they use their tusks to dig up dry riverbeds and create watering holes that many animals can drink from.
Their dung is full of seeds, helping plants spread across the environment, and it makes for good habitat for dung beetles as well. 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
African elephants have large ears that radiate heat to help keep them cool, but sometimes the African heat is too much. They 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 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 finger-like features on the end of their trunk that they can use to grab small items. 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.
Diet and Behavior
African 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.
Elephants eat so much that they’re increasingly coming into contact with humans, often causing damage to crops. Many conservation programs work with farmers to help them protect their crops and provide compensation when an elephant does raid them.
Herd Structure and Reproduction
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. The calf will stay close to its mother for the first few years of its life, learning important survival skills such as how to find food and water and how to defend itself from predators.
Threats to Survival
Poaching for the illegal ivory trade is the biggest threat to African elephants. The high demand for ivory, particularly in Asia, has led to a sharp decline in elephant populations in many areas.
Habitat loss is also a major issue for both savanna and forest elephants, as human populations continue to expand and convert natural habitats for agriculture and urban development. Climate change also poses a threat to elephants as it changes their migration patterns and alters the availability of food and water.
In order to protect African elephants from extinction, conservation organizations are working to combat poaching and habitat loss. This includes strengthening law enforcement efforts to stop poachers, providing alternative livelihoods for local communities to reduce their dependence on poaching, and protecting and restoring elephant habitats.
Education and awareness-raising campaigns are also an important part of the effort to conserve elephants, as they aim to reduce demand for ivory and create support for conservation efforts.
African elephants are a vital part of the ecosystems in which they live and play a crucial role as “ecosystem engineers.” These majestic animals are facing a number of threats, from poaching for the illegal ivory trade to habitat loss and climate change. Conservation efforts are needed to protect and preserve these magnificent creatures for future generations. It is vital for us to act now to save this emblematic animal from extinction.