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Field guide to African elephants


Despite being the planet’s largest land mammal, the African elephant’s situation looks increasingly precarious. Born Free Foundation’s Laura Gosset and Will Travers describe this endlessly appealing wildlife giant  



African elephants, the largest land mammal on earth, are symbolic of a whole continent. Known for their intelligence, complex communication and close, often lifelong family relationships, these powerful giants are also the engineers that maintain many of Africa’s diverse habitats, and contribute to a stable global climate. A keystone species on which many plant and animal species indirectly depend, they are found in forests, maintaining tracks through the otherwise impenetrable undergrowth and dispersing seeds, while also being an iconic savannah species, sometimes gathering in their hundreds to feed and drink.

Many forests in central Africa depend on elephants for seed dispersal and to create open spaces where seedlings can grow. In turn, these forests sequester carbon and release water and oxygen into the atmosphere therefore playing a key role in local, regional and global climate control.

Living alongside elephants has always been a challenge but in recent memory conflict has been increasingly rife. Man has long killed elephants for their ivory, persecuted them for raiding crops and removed them from the wild for zoos or to perform in circuses for our entertainment. However, alongside this troubled relationship, in recent years they have increasingly be a driver of wildlife tourism from around the world. Their highly developed social structure, behaviour and beauty make them a wonder to behold in their natural habitat.

The understanding and protection of elephants is not only important for their own continued survival but also for the survival of their habitats, thereby directly affecting entire ecosystems and indirectly affecting the human communities living close to them and beyond.



Previously believed to be just one species, recent genetic evidence suggests that there may in fact be two distinct species of African elephant: the savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).

Although they are currently still officially regarded as variations of one species there are profound implications for the conservation of both savannah and forest elephants should this re-classification be more widely accepted.



Recent data suggests that between 400,000 and 650,000 elephants live in 38 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the lower figure is thought to be most likely.  Drastic population decline and range contraction in recent years means elephants are now locally extinct in many parts of their former range, including Burundi in the 1970s, Mauritania in the 1980s, and Sierra Leone in 2011. Their current range includes most of southern and eastern Africa as well as patchy distribution as far west as Senegal.
Habitat degradation and destruction, increasing human population and changing land uses are fragmenting the available habitat where elephants live and through which elephants migrate, leaving some smaller populations isolated and at risk – for example those at the fringe of their range. These populations may not have the genetic or population diversity to survive in the long term without the ability to mix with other herds in the region.


Physical characteristics

Standing up to four metres tall and weighing between 2,000 and 7,000kg, these mega-herbivores can live for up to 70 years.

Elephants have two very distinctive physical characteristics apart from their sheer size. The first is their extremely versatile trunk. Containing many thousands of muscles, the trunk is perfectly adapted to picking up food, touching and greeting other elephants, drawing up water, breathing and producing sound. The second distinctive characteristic is the African elephant’s large ears. By flapping their capillary-filled ears they can increase their rate of heat loss, permitting them to regulate their body temperature and thereby allowing them to endure hot conditions.

Other physical characteristics include extremely thick skin on many parts of the body – affording them protection from injury and harsh climatic condition. They also have six sets of increasingly strong molars for grinding food. Interestingly these teeth, unlike in many other animals, will not be retained throughout their adult life but are shed as new ones move forward at the back of the mouth.



Elephants are herbivores and have relatively inefficient digestive systems. As such, they need over 150kg of food every day, requiring them to feed for up to 75 per cent of their time. As herbivores their diet is varied, and consists of grass, leaves, twigs, buds, fruit and even roots and bark. Elephants act as engineers of their ecosystem, dispersing undigested plant seeds through their dung. Their foraging habits can also drastically alter the landscape.



Females (or cows) live in large matrilineal herds made up of families in which all of the individuals are related to each other via the female line, and who are presided over by a matriarch. This matriarch is the oldest and most experienced; an individual who is able to lead the herd to reliable food and water sources and keep them out of danger.

Herds can consist of hundreds of individuals and can have home ranges of up to 1,800km2. Bulls, on the other hand, are often found alone, in much smaller bachelor groups or at the fringes of their family, with one or two younger bulls accompanying older more experienced individuals.

When angry or aggressive, elephants will raise their heads and spread their ears in an attempt to make themselves look more threatening, behaviour that can be combined with throwing dust and vegetation. Usually this is a display of strength more than an actual threat – although it’s generally a good idea to take this as a hint if you encounter it! A smaller individual will tend to lower its head and trunk to show its submission.

With highly developed emotions, communication is a key component of social and sexual behaviour, with touch playing an important part in bonding and greeting within and between families. Frequently reported to mourn their dead, elephants have shown astounding self-awareness and emotional capacity.



Mating occurs in the wet season when food and water are in abundance. Around the age of 25, males will enter musth, a state marked by elevated testosterone levels and during which they become ready to mate and fight for females. Females will also enter their oestrus cycle during this period and become receptive to sexual advances.  Females will also be guarded by males in musth, who will defend them against the advance of other males. A successful male may mate with multiple females.

African elephants have a long gestation period of around two years and the calf remains entirely dependent, both physically and emotionally, on its mother for three to five years after birth. Female calves will stay with their matriarchal families for life.



Elephants face a number of serious threats, including illegal killing for the ivory trade and trade in other body parts, and conflict with humans – the latter occurring both directly and indirectly through habitat destruction for agriculture and human population expansion. With a low reproductive rate (one calf born every seven to eight years) and the length of time it takes for an elephant to reach sexual maturity, these threats can have a severe impact, leaving some populations unable to maintain their numbers as illegal killing and population fragmentation outstrip their natural reproduction rate.

The illegal ivory trade is reported to result in tens of thousands of elephant deaths each year across Africa, for the sole purpose of making trinkets and other luxury ornamental items sold in the Far East. These status symbols are in increasing demand as countries like China grow ever more affluent.

The direct repercussions of this slaughter are all too often overlooked. Removing the dominant bull in an area can have far-reaching consequences for many years to come: without the dominant and controlling influence of the leading bull, younger males can become overly aggressive and sexually charged – often resulting in reduced reproductive success.

Furthermore, targeting the larger tusked older animals in a herd often leads to the matriarch being killed, potentially reducing survival and reproductive success amongs the remaining females and juveniles.

Habitat loss reduces elephants’ ability to roam as freely as they need to in their ongoing hunt for food and water. This not only limits population size due to home range restriction but also through the resulting lack of resources. The increasing use of savannah and forest habitats for human agriculture also brings humans and elephants into more and more contact, which in turn increases incidences of conflict. This often leads to the deaths of both elephants and humans.


Responsible viewing

There are a number of do’s and don’ts when it comes to the responsible viewing of elephants in the wild. Although this is certainly the best place to see elephants we must be respectful of their needs.

Each national park or designated protected area will have its own rules and regulations when it comes to safaris and elephant watching so it is important to be aware of what these are before setting out. These include leaving enough space between the vehicle and the elephant (around 50 metres); something you should insist that your driver adheres to. Following the instructions of your guide will allow you to safely enjoy the experience while not disturbing the wildlife.

However tempting it might be, do not encourage your guide or driver to speed, drive off road or get closer to the animals. These are all disturbing to wildlife and potentially dangerous for you. Do not move quickly. Above all, do not scream or shout; silence truly is rewarding.

About Born Free

The Born Free Foundation is a dynamic international wildlife charity, devoted to compassionate conservation and animal welfare, taking action worldwide to protect threatened species and stop individual animal suffering. Founded in 1984 by Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna and inspired by their roles in the 1964 film Born Free, the Born Free Foundation works to protect elephants and other wild animals in their natural habitat; to phase out the keeping of wild animals in captivity; and actively fights the wildlife trade. The Foundation takes numerous measures to help protect elephants including working to prevent the re-opening of the ivory trade to supporting anti-poaching and wildlife law enforcement (www.bloodyivory.org).



Images copyright: George Logan 



Where to see elephants in the wild 




Kenya boasts many savannah dominated national parks with high elephant numbers, making it an ideal destination for those wishing to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. Amboseli National Park is famous for being one of the best places in Africa to see free-ranging elephants, along with many other wildlife species. At 390km2, this relatively small park is also home to Masai communities and offers spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro. On the other hand, Tsavo National Park in south eastern Kenya, some 240km from Nairobi, contains open grasslands, scrublands, acacia woodlands, belts of riverine vegetation and rocky ridges. This expansive and diverse ecosystem, spreading into neighbouring Tanzania, is home to the largest elephant population in Kenya and offers visitors the opportunity to see elephants all year round.

 The best time to view elephants is the dry season when they congregate near water sources. In Kenya, July to October is warm and dry and therefore best for both viewing and comfort.





With one of the largest elephant populations in Africa, Tanzania is another popular safari destination. Despite its small size, Lake Manyara National Park is an unspoiled and lush paradise with ground water forests and underground springs. It’s also home to vast herds of elephants, as well as many other species including unique tree-climbing lions and some 400 species of bird.

Another option is Tarangire National Park, which is larger than Lake Manyara at around 2,850km2. Here the landscape changes and features wide savannah plains, dotted with impressive baobab trees and bisected by the Tarangire river, offering a truly exceptional safari experience. Along with large elephant numbers, sightings include numerous cat species.

Wildlife can be viewed all year round in Tanzania but the best time to visit is during the dry season, when the herds return from further north. Visiting Lake Manyara between June and September and Tarangire between July and January affords the best chance of seeing large numbers of free-roaming wild species in one place.




Hwange National Park is the largest reserve in Zimbabwe, situated in the north west of the country. Designated a national park in 1949, Hwange is one of the great unfenced wildernesses in the region, allowing large herds of free ranging animals to migrate as far as the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

The ideal time to visit the Hwange National Park is during the dry season of July through to October as many of the herds move into Botswana for the wet season to feed.



The Chobe National Park in Botswana, adjoining Hwange National Park, is home to an estimated 100,000 elephants. Free-ranging elephants from Zimbabwe also come across the border to feed in the wet season, making this a prime destination for those wishing to see both elephants and other Big Five species. This spectacular park also affords travellers the opportunity to visit the breathtaking Okavango Delta.

It is recommended that you visit in the dry season. which starts as early as April. This is when thousands of elephants can be seen on the banks of the Chobe River.


South Africa

The world famous Kruger National Park, covering an impressive 19,633km2, is situated in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga in north eastern South Africa. This region of expansive grassy plains and thorny woodland thickets attracts safari goers from around the world, drawn by the possibility of seeing awe-inspiring wildlife and landscapes. With an elephant population of around 10,000, ou stand a good chance of seeing some.

The best time to visit Kruger to see elephants is during the dry winter months, between April and October.



Mole National Park, Ghana’s largest national park, is situated in the pristine Guinea Savannah Woodland ecosystem. Situated in the north of the country, nearly 450km from Kumasi and 670km from Accra in the south, this is not the easiest location to get to so will appeal to the more adventurous traveller. However, as the home of 93 species of mammals (including elephants), this is the best and most visited place to see wildlife in Ghana. This park is also the most important water catchment in the area and therefore attracts large congregations of species.

Although hard to see in the wet season, elephants are easily spotted in the dry season from January to March.


Burkina Faso

Parc W National Park, stretching into Benin and Niger, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Known for its large mammals and world-class wetlands, the park is open all year round. This is another location that will appeal to the more adventurous traveller but is well worth the additional effort as it’s home to a large number of West Africa’s remaining wild elephants.

Although the park is open all year round, access is difficult during the wet season so visits are recommended between February and late May, when the vegetation is low and the wildlife congregates around the permanent watering holes.


Please note:

All the above parks charge an entrance fee, usually payable on arrival and varying from $15 (£9) to over US $40 (£25) per day depending on the activity as well as the park you are wishing to visit. Safari arrangements are worth looking into before travelling to avoid disappointment.