There are two distinct species of African elephant: the savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). The savannah elephant is found in central and eastern Africa south of the Sahara, living in varied habitat including marsh, savannah, woodlands, and semi-desert.
All five elephants at The Maryland Zoo are African elephants of the savannah type. In March 2007, the Zoo celebrated the first elephant birth in its 132-year history. “Samson,” a male calf, was born to “Felix,” one of 3 adult females in the Zoo’s herd. The others are “Dolly” and “Anna,” and “Tuffy” is the adult bull. You can see the elephants on exhibit in the Zoo’s African Journey area.
Elephants are family-oriented animals with complex social lives. Related females live together for life in herds and raise offspring together. All members of a herd defer to one leader, the oldest and wisest female in the family group, known as the matriarch. She leads the others to water and food, decides when to sleep and when to move, responds first to threats, and basically takes charge in every conceivable situation.
As male elephants reach adolescence, they strike out on a different path from their female relatives. They leave their birth herds. Young males often seek out other males their age and form close bonds. Younger males also may associate with older males in loose groups known as bachelor herds. While the social lives of both male and female elephants remain mysterious in many ways, and while there are still many questions to be answered, it appears that male elephants learn and practice how to “be male” while in the company of other males in bachelor herds.
Adult male elephants also are inclined instinctively to spend much of their time alone. This is especially true when a male elephant enters musth, a period of heightened aggression that paves the way for asserting dominance and competing successfully for females. All male elephants are in constant search of mates, but only those that assert their dominance over other males will win the right to breed.
Elephants require a tremendous amount of food to maintain their massive bodies. In a single day, one elephant may eat 300 pounds of vegetation, including grasses, roots, bark, leaves, and fruit, and drink 30 to 50 gallons of water. In order to find this much food and water, wild elephants are almost always on the move.
Elephants can communicate with each other over long distances through sound, including low-frequency infrasound that we can’t hear. Standing up close to an elephant making an infrasonic call, you might hear or feel a low rumble. Another elephant would be able to hear that infrasonic call up to 12 miles away! Elephants also communicate through touch, sight, smell, and chemical processing. Body language is highly developed in elephants. Their sense of smell is as exceptional as their sense of hearing, and they also exhibit long-term memory. They are extremely social animals that protect their weakest, help their injured, and seem to mourn their dead.
Elephants affect their environment perhaps more than any other creature on earth. Their size, strength, and food needs make this inevitable. They can completely change a landscape just by feeding. They strip bark and leaves from trees and bushes, pull trees straight out of the ground, trample underbrush, dig for roots, dig holes in dry riverbeds to reach water, and spread plant seeds over many miles with dung deposits. There can be no mistaking when an elephant herd has passed through an area. Because of their tremendous environmental impact, elephants also greatly influence the survival and adaptive strategies of many other plant and animal species sharing the same ecosystem.
Given their tremendous size and strength, and because they gather in groups, elephants have few predators to worry about. Lions, hyenas, and crocodiles may attempt to prey on young or sick elephants. However, elephants are often successful at fending predators off, protecting their young, and defending sick or injured herd mates. For example, when a matriarch detects a nearby predator, she will herd offspring together and all other adult females in the group will form an outward facing circle around them, providing many layers of protection from the would-be attacker. Elephants are most vulnerable to, and threatened by, humans. Demand for elephant tusks – the main source of commercial ivory – has led to aggressive poaching that has decimated elephant populations across Africa. Although it is illegal to kill wild African elephants, it has proven extremely difficult to eradicate poaching.
Female elephants reach sexual maturity at about age 10 but may not mate for several more years. When females come into estrus, they attract breeding bulls. Bulls of the highest rank will gain access to females and breed. After an exceptionally long pregnancy of about 22 months, a female will give birth to usually one calf, and very rarely to twins. She will nurse her offspring for about 4 years, usually until she gives birth again, but she will care for each offspring for many years more. Baby and juvenile elephants in a herd have the benefit of multiple caregivers, as all female relatives share in raising the young. In particular, young females take on the role of allomother, which is comparable to babysitter. They keep watch over the youngest elephants, help them, comfort them, play with them, and gain mothering experience all the while. Research has shown that elephant family groups with few or no allomothers suffer higher infant mortality than those with allomothers.
African elephants are endangered and the conservation issues that concern them are complicated. Despite an international ban on ivory trade passed in 1989, poaching remains a significant threat. Competition with humans for limited space and resources is an equally significant threat. African elephants once ranged freely from south of the Sahara Desert to northern South Africa. Today, they are mostly confined to parks and reserves. As a result, their natural habitats are fragmented, there can end up being too many elephants in too little space, yet those that range outside of protected borders are quite likely to come into conflict with people or to be killed by poachers. In order to insure that African elephants continue to walk the earth for many generations to come, successful long-term resolution to human-elephant competition and conflict must be achieved.
The elephant exhibit is sponsored by:
“Elephant’s teeth are no laughing matter,” special for The Baltimore Examiner, 11/13/2008, p. 46.
“Felix’s baby doesn’t have a name yet,but zoo visitors have several suggestions,” The Baltimore Examiner, 3/21/2008, p. 31.
“A lot to learn about elephants,” special to The Baltimore Examiner, 11/27/2006, p.36.
“In the Company of Elephants,” summer 2005 Zoogram, pp. 8-9
News from the Zoo, summer 2006 Zoogram, p. 4
“From a Pair to a Herd,” winter 2006 Zoogram, pp. 10-11
“Neighboring Pachyderms Come to Stay,” spring 2007 Zoogram, pp. 6-7
News from the Zoo, summer 2007 Zoogram, p. 5
News from the Zoo, winter 2007 Zoogram, p. 4
“It’s a Boy!” summer 2008 Zoogram, pp. 8-9
“Gumming It,” fall 2008 Zoogram, p. 5
News from the Zoo, winter 2008 Zoogram, pp. 4-5
“A Bull Among Elephants,” summer 2010 Zoogram, pp. 8-9.