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African Elephant – the World’s Largest Land Animal

The African elephant is the largest land animal

The African Elephant is considered today the largest animal living on the surface of the planet, and is a member of the family Elephantidae, and also a member of the genus Loxodonta.

Brief history of the African Elephant

Just a few decades ago, the continent was teeming with large herds of elephants walking across the African plains, but today, elephants are facing extinction due to poaching for their ivory.

We have come to this situation today because back in the 70’s and 80’s, the demand for ivory skyrocketed, and no one was monitoring the ivory trade that was being sold legally even though was taken illegally.

In only one decade, about 100,000 elephants was killed for ivory every year, and elephants lost about half of their population.

Luckily, in 1989, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) banned officially any trade of ivory, which was a very good measure for that moment.

The number of elephants began to recover, but the growth has been just enough to spur a revival of the ivory trade in the Southern African countries that started to lobby CITES to reopen the ivory trade in the form of a one soft sale of their ivory stockpiles that was accumulated through natural mortality and also game management.

Sadly, CITES granted the permission for the soft sale of the ivory in 1999, and another permission in 2008.

The theory behind the decision said that the legal sale of ivory would flood the market with ivory obtained legally and would also prevent the illegal trade.

These two permissions have restarted the ivory trade and also the poaching crisis.

Illegally obtained ivory has been reintroduced in the market, and this was actually the way of monetizing the ivory from poaching.

The legal ivory trade was actually used as a cover for smuggling of illegal ivory.

Sadly, until there are people that want to buy ivory, the trade will continue with or without permission, and the poaching as well.

We need to understand that these magnificent animals are the spirits of the planet, and if we don’t respect them as they deserve just because we like different objects made of ivory we will lose way more by making them to vanish from the planet.

African Elephant Characteristics

The African elephant consists of two subspecies such as the African bush (savanna) elephant and the African forest elephant.

The African Bush Elephant

The African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest among the two (taller and heavier than the African forest elephant which is the third-largest animal on the planet), and can be easily recognized due to its concave back and a massive body that sits on very strong legs.

The African bush elephant has large ears used to eliminate excess heat from the head and body (cooling role) and a long and useful trunk that is an extension of the upper lip and nose.

The elephant’s trunk is considered a fifth leg, this is the reason why an elephant that loses its trunk or a part of it is like a man without limbs.

African elephants’ trunks always end in two opposing lips that are used to grab things and to touch things or other elephants, and the trunk itself is also used by the elephant as a sound amplifier.

The African bush elephant has huge tusks that curve outwards, and could have a length up to 3 meters and along with the trunk they could weigh about 230 kg (507 lbs).

Males are larger than females reaching a height at the shoulder (while standing) between 3.2 and 4 m (10.5 – 13 ft), and a weight between 4.7 and 6 tons (10,300 – 13,300 lbs).

Females can reach a height at the shoulder (while standing) between 2.2 and 2.6 m (7 – 8.5 ft) and a weight between 2.1 and 3.2 tons (4,700 – 7,100 lbs).

Some elephant males are taller and thinner while others are more compact and heavier, this is the reason why by now, the tallest recorded individual stood had a height at the shoulder of 4.21 m (13.8 ft), and a weight of almost 8 tons, while the heaviest individual stood ever recorded had a height at the shoulder of 3.96 m (13.0 ft), but a weight of 10.4 tons.

The African Forest Elephant

The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is a smaller elephant that lives in the dense forests of central and west equatorial Africa, but mostly in the forests of the Congo Basin.

Is considered the third-largest elephant on the planet because is even smaller than its Asian cousin (Elephas maximus).

The males are reaching a shoulder height of only 2.5 meters (8.2 ft) and a weight of maximum 6 tons, while the females are even smaller with a shoulder height of up to 2.2 meters (7.2 ft) and a weight of around 2.7 tons.

Loxodonta cyclotis is a forest-dwelling elephant with a yellow or brownish colour of its skin, and a hairy body.

Its ears are rounder an smaller and the trunk also ends in two opposing lips and is used to grab things, touch other elephants, drink water, eat and as a sound amplifier.

Its tusks are almost straight and are used to push through the dense forest.

Some mature bull elephants have exceptionally long tusks that can even reach the ground.

African Elephant Classification

Georges Cuvier named the genus “Loxodonte” in 1825, but later an anonymous author changed the name into “Loxodonta” in his novel, which was then accepted as the proper authority in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.

African Elephant Ancestors

Loxodonta adaurora (fossil) is considered to be the mammoth (genus Mammuthus) that lived about 4,500 years ago in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.

Loxodonta exoptata (fossil), is the presumed ancestor of the Loxodonta atlantica.

Loxodonta atlantica (fossil), is considered today to be the ancestor of the modern African elephants.

Loxodonta cyclotis is the African forest elephant that lives today in Africa, mostly in the Congo Basin.

Loxodonta africana pharaoensis is the North African elephant, which is already extinct.

Loxodonta africana is the African bush elephant and is the largest animal in the world living on land.

A study published in 2010, has showed that the divergence between the savanna elephants and the forest elephants appeared between 2.5 and 5.4 million years ago, and is similar to the divergence that appeared in the same period of time between the Asian elephant and the Woolly Mammoth, showing that they are separate species.

However, more recent DNA analysis shows that the extinct European elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), which was an elephant with straight tusks is more related to the actual African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).

This means that the actual African forest elephant is more related to its extinct ancestor (the European elephant) and less related to the actual African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana).

African Elephant Behavior and Intelligence

The African elephant society is created around family units.

These family units consist of about ten related females and their calves, and they are led by an older and more experienced female called the matriarch.

When different family units bond, they form a bond group (kinship).

When reaching puberty, male elephants tend to form alliances with other males.

Calves are born after a gestation period of 22 months, and they can live almost as long as humans (60 to 70 years).

All calves are raised by their mother and also by other young females in the same group, which are called allomothers.

To communicate on long distances, elephants use some type of vocalisations that are beyond the hearing range of any human.

When males (bull elephants) enter in musth the glands located behind the eyes will start releasing secretions.

Annually, males have a cycle of musth (heightened aggressiveness) and a non-musth cycle.

When male elephants (bulls) enter the musth cycle, they become very aggressive, they are ready to fight with other bull elephants, they can destroy things around them, and they can attack other animals and even people.

African elephants are considered highly intelligent animals, and they share with us, the apes and some dolphin species a large and highly convoluted neocortex.

Another similarity with humans is represented by the structure and complexity of their brain.

The cortex of the elephant has the same number of neurons like people have, which is another common thing with us.

They also have a very good memory, maybe even better than ours, this is why we better behave nicely with all elephants because they never forget.

African Elephant Conservation

I mentioned above that poaching generated by the ivory trade is the biggest enemy of the wild elephants.

According to WWF, the actual population of elephants is around 600,000 individuals, from which in Africa we have about 415,000, and in Asia around 32,000.

Poaching is still the biggest enemy and even if China, which owns the largest ivory market on the planet and stated that they want to ban the ivory trade (a nearly complete ban on the import and export of ivory in China), the Chinese consumers have decided to move to other markets (Laos).

To stop poaching and revive the elephant population in Africa and Asia, we need to ban ivory trade for good, and we need to educate the consumers that elephants are more important for us the nature than any ivory-based object.

About 20% of the African elephant population are under formal protection, but poachers still represent a danger for these magnificent animals.

Banning ivory trade all over the planet is the best measure to protect the elephant population in Africa and Asia.

African elephant distribution 2018

African elephant distribution 2018.

Article written by:

Darius Savin is a lifelong animal lover and protector and the chief editor of Checkmember. He writes and edits articles and is also the creator of the distribution maps for all the creatures featured here.