african elephant

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.

Diet

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.

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