Animal of the Month - Elephant
Updated: Jan 10
Lifespan: about 60 years.
Weight: 4000 to 6000 Kgs.
Height: 3.5 meters
Gestation: 22 months
Offspring: 1 calf
Characteristics of the African Elephant
The elephant is the largest land mammal on earth and eats exclusively on any type of vegetation – roots, bark, grass, leaves, wood, flowers, seeds and fruit – making it a mega vegetarian.
The Kruger National Park is home to plus minus 15 000 elephants and thus have the capacity to do much damage to the vegetation in the park. They require up to 250 kilograms of food and water every day. Elephants need to eat for up to 20 hours day in order to obtain enough nutrients to survive.
During the winter months when there is little or no grass or palatable vegetation elephants will push over trees so that the roots are exposed. The tree keeps all its nutrients and moisture in its root systems ready for use when summer comes along. The elephants use these roots as a reliable alternative source of nutrients when there is not much else to eat.
During the summer months they will push over trees so that the leaves are brought closer to the ground in order for them to have access to the nutritious new leaves.
Another clever adaptation to obtaining some form of food in the winter is selecting certain tree branches and rolling them between their teeth. This removes the bark so that they can access the tissues that supply the tree with nutrients and moisture. This tissue lies just underneath the layer of bark.
One of the elephant’s favourite food is fruit and grass especially in the first months of summer. The grass is soft, juicy and nutritious. They will scoop up layers of grass and break them off with their trunks and toes nails and preferably only eat the stems and flowers, leaving the roots behind. Or they will be seen eating fresh juicy flowers from trees.
Another interesting fact about elephants and other wild animals, is that there are two types of digestion systems – a ruminant or a hind gut fermenter. Most ungulate species such as impala, waterbuck, giraffe and buffalo are ruminants (4 chambered stomachs – they regurgitate their food and chew the cud). An elephant on the other hand is a hind gut fermenter. What it eats – comes out – only about 40% of what they eat is absorbed by the body. The food is broken down by fermentation in the caecum (hind gut) by specialized bacteria. But this type of digestion is very inefficient. When you look at an elephants poop, you will see lots of undigested bark, leaves, seeds and grass. This is why an elephant has to eat so much and for such long periods – and why they poop so much.
When you are traveling in the park and you see a whole herd of elephants, generally they will be what we call a breeding herd. These will consist of moms, aunts, nephews and nieces, so mostly female elephants.
If you see some males – they are normally under the ages of 13 or 14. At this age the males become sexually active and the mothers will chase them away from the herd. This is an extremely stressful time for the young males. They have been in a very close nit family for 14 years and now they need to leave the safety and companionship of the herd to live on their own. It is like sending our 14 year old child out into the world, saying that “I never want to see you again”.
Sometimes they will shadow the herd for a while and then maybe join up with a much older male. This older male will eventually show him how to become a dominant bull. During this time the young male will learn where to find good areas for food and water, they learn how to fight for the right to mate, they learn which bulls are more dominant than themselves, thus giving them respect and they learn all the body language that a mature bull needs to survive to adulthood.
When you see one or two elephants together they are most likely to be males or what we call bull elephants. They live either on their own or temporarily seek out the company of another bulls. Once they reach the age of about thirty five – they become sexually mature and start fighting other bulls for the right to mate. Only when they reach about 40 to 45 will they have the right to mate with the females.
Bull elephants have a specific mating season which occurs once a year for about 3 months. This time of heightened levels of testosterone (an increase of up to 60%) is called MUSTH. During this time an elephant bull is exceptionally unpredictable and aggressive.
The bulls temporal gland on the side of the face next to the eye swells into a large ball and exudes a thick substance called temporin and he urinates continuously for three months. It is strongly advised to stay away from a musth bull at all times. During musth, bull elephants actively search for females that are in oestrus in season). They walk far distances, hardly eat and fight anything that gets in their way.
They inspect the genital area of each female they come across and are able to tell if they are coming into or are in oestrus (season). The female will be ready at about the age of 14. They will stay with this female, protect her and fight of any other suitors until he gets to mate with her. There is great excitement amongst the females when a musth bull arrives into the herd. Often they will “flirt” with him by rubbing their heads or backsides in his face.
The females only come into season once every four years and stay in season for about four days.
If the female is ready she plays “hard to get” by running away from him, he chases her and when he catches up to her, places his trunk on top of her back, she stops, he takes all his weight onto his back legs and places his front legs onto her back to steady himself. He then mates with her. If for some reason she does not accept the bull to be the best suiter. She lets all of his sperm flow out of her.
Sometimes young bulls take chances. Once the mating has been completed there is still much excitement within the herd. They rumble and trumpet with pleasure. It is a real treat to watch this entire process.
If the mating is successful – the female will give birth 22 months later normally to a single calf. It is highly unusual for a female to produce twins. The calf will suckle for anywhere between 2 and 4 years depending on the birthing cycle of the female. If the calf is a female – she will stay with the herd and if it is a male, he will leave at about 14 years old.
In contrast to many other animals who are led by the males, the elephant herd is led by a matriarch (female mom) and are super protective of their families especially the babies and young ones. It is a good rule never to get between a mom and her baby. Always be careful when you see a herd of elephant. The mothers can be unpredictable if they think you pose a threat to the herd. Sometimes if the herd becomes too big, a daughter to the matriarch will split from the herd with her youngsters and start her own herd. They will however remain a kinship group who will come together at times for reunions.
In other cases – herd can be up to 1000 strong if conditions are favourable.
Elephants are masters of communication. They can talk to each with low frequency calls (infrasound) from up to 10 kilometres away.
Humans cannot hear this communication. This happens by passing airflow over a very large voice box. The low frequency sound waves can be picked up via the ground through their feet, like seismic vibrations. They have specialized cells receptors in their feet that pick up the low frequency talk. The rumbles, trumpets, cries and snorts that we can hear from elephants are called ultrasound communication. There is much ongoing research on this subject at the moment
The elephant trunk is the fusion of the upper lip and the nose which has 150 000 muscle units which enables them breathe, push over trees, grasp grass and seeds, smell, fight, caress, suck up water and trumpet.
Elephants are known for their large ears. Some people make the mistake of thinking that when the elephant is flapping its ears, it is angry. This I not so. If you have a look at the back of an elephant ear you will see many thick and thin blood vessels. Every 20 minutes the blood of the entire elephant passes through these vessels. So when the elephant is flapping its ears, it is creating a cool breeze which flows over the blood vessels, thus cooling the elephant, like a giant radiator. When an elephant is irritable or angry it either keeps its ears very close to the body or makes itself look much bigger by extending its ears out sideways.
If you have the opportunity to have an elephant pass close by you – you will notice that they hardly make a noise – even though they are so big. When we want to walk quietly – we walk on our tiptoes. So do elephants. If you look at the skeleton of an elephant you will see that they actually walk on their toes. They have a special fatty tissue underneath their toes that acts as a shock absorber. When they place their feet on the ground you will see their feet enlarge slightly at the point of impact which also cushions the foot.
In times of drought or areas that have little water, elephants dig for water in dry riverbeds. They seems to be able to tell where there is underground water and then dig with their front legs until the water filters though the sand. Other animals also make use of these holes to obtain water.
If you see a group of elephants or maybe only one, sending time at a skeleton, the chances are that the skeleton is that of another elephant. They are one of the few animals that mourn their dead. They are silent and gentle around the carcass and spend much time feeling and smelling the bones.
An interesting yet startling fact and a sign of the times is that 99% of all elephants have been killed in Africa in the last 100 years. So in theory, they will be extinct in less than 100 years from now due to man’s greed for elephant’s tusks. In some areas elephants are so scared of man that they run away at the sign of vehicles. In other areas they are only seen at night and in other areas elephants don’t grow tusks at all. How can an animal be so intelligent as to know not to grow their tusks so they don’t get killed?
Elephants are intelligent, caring, patient, adaptive, about family, feel grief, pain and anger, trusting – much like humans do. The African elephant is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However one of the biggest threats to elephant populations is the ivory trade and habitat destruction.