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the web of life in southern Africa

Loxodonta africana (African elephant)

elephant [English]; olifant, Afrika-olifant [Afrikaans]; Afrikanischer Elefant [German]; eléphant d' Afrique [French]; ndovu, tembo [Swahili]; indlovu ye-Afrika [isiNdebele]; indlovu [isiXhosa] [isiZulu] [siSwati]; dou [Sepedi] [Sesotho] [Sctswana]; nzou, zhou [Shona]; ndlopfu [Xitsonga]; ndou [Tshivenda]; tou [Lozi] unjovo [Yei]; ╪ Khoab [Nama] [Damara]; ndhlovu, ndjou [Herero]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Afrotheria > Paenungulata > Tethytheria > Proboscidea (elephants, mammoths)

Loxodonta africana (African elephant)

African elephant, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Arno Meintjes ©]

Loxodonta africana (African elephant) Loxodonta africana (African elephant)

African elephant, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Arno Meintjes ©]

White desert form of the African elephant, Etosha National Park, Namibia. [photo Coke Smith ©]

Loxodonta africana (African elephant)

Two young elephants playfully fighting, Sweni River, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Callie de Wet ©]

Loxodonta africana (African elephant)

A herd of elephants at Chobe National Park, Botswana. [photo Coke Smith ©]


African elephants are the largest living land mammals. As elephants grow continuously throughout their lives, the largest member of a herd is usually the oldest. The largest known specimen was killed in Angola in 1955. Weighing 10 000 kg and 4 m high at the shoulder, it is now on display at the Smithsonian institution in Washington D. C. At birth the African elephant weighs 120 kg.

Elephants are easily recognized by their massive size, their long truck and large ears and most carry tusks although some individuals and populations are tuskless. The heaviest pair of tusks recorded, came from Kenya and weighed 102.3 kg and 97 kg respectively. The elephant’s skull is massive in order to support the tusks and comprises up to 25% of its body weight.


Male: Body Length 1.5 m; height at shoulder 3.2 – 4.0 m; weight range 5 000 - 6 300 kg.
Female: Body Length 1.5 m; height at shoulder 2.5 – 3.4 m; weight range 2 800 – 3 500 kg.


The single upper incisor grows into the tusks and the molars fall out at the front of the upper and lower jaw when worn down. They are replaced by the next tooth from behind. Only one tooth on each side, above and below is in use at any one time. At the age of 60 only the last molar (M6) remains and maybe only a fragment of the original tooth. At this stage the elephant is unable to chew its food properly and begins to decline physically, essentially it starves.

Dental formula:


Distribution and habitat

Occurs in Africa south of the Sahara, preferring savanna grassland and forest. They tolerate a wide range of habitats providing sufficient food, water and shade are available.

General behaviour

Elephants live in small family groups led by an older cow the matriarch. At times of abundant food or water several family groups may congregate to form a large herd. Adult bulls are solitary or from part of smaller bachelor groups and only join the family herds when females are in breeding condition.


An adult elephant may eat up to 300 kg of plant material a day. The diet consists of a variety of plants, including trees, fruit, shrubs and grass.


22 months

Life span

60 years in the wild, 80 years in captivity.


The elephant is one of Africa’s “Big Five”.


The most serious threats to elephants include the poaching for ivory and the encroachment by humans and agriculture on their traditional ranges and migration routes. In protected areas where large herds survive but cannot range widely they can inflict huge damage on vegetation. Limiting elephant populations causes huge debate and culling while the most economical option in many instances is unacceptable to many people as a solution.

Text by Denise Hamerton