The African elephant is the world’s largest land mammal. Male (bull) elephants can reach ten feet tall and weigh as much as 6.5 tons. That’s about the same weight as two Humvees. A newborn calf can weigh over 260 lbs.
Today, there are just two species of elephant in Africa: savanna (bush) elephant and forest elephant. Both are officially endangered, with the smaller and shier forest elephant critically endangered. This means the forest elephant faces an ‘extremely high risk’ of extinction in the wild. Around 90% of their combined populations have been lost in the last century. Historically, there were as many as seven separate species, including the North African elephant, which Carthaginian general Hannibal famously led across the Alps to attack Rome.
When it comes to the Big Five species (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and rhino), it’s the bush elephant which comes to the fore. An icon of the African plains, they live in family herds led by a matriarch and exclusively made up of females and juvenile males. Mature males have the largest tusks and generally roam alone, although they can form small groups with other males. They are not involved in the upbringing of young. Recent research suggests males separated from their family groups in order to protect the rest of the herd from poachers after ivory.
Although generally considered docile, an adult elephant is more than capable of fighting off lions. Their reputation is such that the so-called king of the jungle doesn’t even show an interest in hunting elephant, except for isolated prides in Kenya’s Maasai Mara and Botswana’s Chobe National Park.
An adult elephant can run at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. They have a lifespan of 60-70 years. While considered one of the world’s most intelligent species, it can take up to a year for a calf to learn to use its trunk effectively. No wonder, when you consider the trunk alone contains 150,000 different muscles. By comparison, the entire human body only has around 600.
Where to See Them
Africa’s forest elephants are limited to central Africa, with the nations of Gabon and Cameroon two of the best places to spot them. Savanna elephants are spread much more widely, in protected areas right across sub-Saharan Africa. Coexisting with forest elephants in some locations, the best places to encounter savanna elephants are east and southern African national parks. In east Africa, consider Serengeti or Tarangire national parks in Tanzania. In southern Africa, top places to see elephants include South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Zimbabwe’s Hwange, and Namibia’s Etosha. For the continent’s last remaining giant tuskers, head to Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park.