What’s the largest land animal you have ever seen in the wild?  this is the question posed to my son, Justin by my great friend Paul Salvado prior to our first trip into Chobe.  My son’s answer was a white tail deer.  I could better him and note a moose, but compared to much of Africa, these are small game.

When visiting Chobe National Park, you will be visiting the home of thousands of elephants.  We have written numberous articles about photographing them and also how to safely approach and avoid problems.  We also frequently follow the local group, Elephants Without Borders, and post stories of their activity.

Another group that does elephant research in northern Botswana is Elephants for Africa.  Today’s education article is from their site and hopefully will increase your knowledge of earth’s largest terrestrial animal.

African Savannah Elephant (Loxodonta africana) – The word Ele-phant means Great Arch It is the largest living land mammal in the world and the males can grow to 4.1m in height and weigh up to 7 tonnes; females are a mere 3.5 tonnes.

Elephant crossing a dusk - © Justin Eleazer

Apart from their colossal size, the most obvious features are their trunks and tusks. The trunk is a fusion of the upper lip and elongated nose. It weighs up to 140kg and can be a deadly weapon. However, it can also pick up a feather, offer comfort to a distressed calf, push over a tree and hold 12 litres of water. It contains at least 50,000 individual muscle units.

Close up of trunk and tusks - © P. B. Eleazer

The tusks are present in both male and female African elephants and are elongated incisor teeth. They first appear at about two years of age and are a mixture of dentine, cartilaginous material and calcium salts. The males’ tusks can be over 100kg in weight. They have been long sought after by man to carve into ornaments and piano keys amongst other things. Man’s greed for ivory has led to a massive decrease in elephant populations throughout the world. In the late 1970’s there were 1.3 million elephants; now there are only an estimated 400-600,000.


Family Time - Drinking along the Chobe - © P. B. Eleazer

The females and their young live in herds. There tends to be one leader, the ‘Matriarch’ who is often the oldest female, mother and grandmother to the rest of the herd members. Being the oldest she has the depth of knowledge that will ensure the survival of herd in times of hardship; taking them to water and food sources beyond their usual range. Whilst the young females will usually stay with the herd, the males leave the herd during adolescence (between the ages of 10 and 19 years) and lead the life of a more solitary ‘bull’ elephant.

Solitary Bull on Sududu Island, Chobe National Park - © P. B. Eleazer


Elephants are highly intelligent, social animals and use a variety of means to communicate amongst themselves over vast distances (up to 14km). Like humans they ‘talk’; so far 70 different calls have been identified by researchers, from the loud trumpets of panic to the comforting rumbles of reassurance. They also pick up information from smells that their trunks are very sensitive to: a male can tell when a female is in oestrous (ready to mate) from the chemical signs she leaves in her urine and faeces. This combined with the characteristic calls of that time, ensure that all the likely suitors will come to try and win her affections. Recent evidence suggests that they may be able to communicate though seismic waves that pass though the ground and which they pick up though their sensitive feet.


  • Elephant skin is up to 2.5 cm thick in places but, despite this, elephants are very prone to skin parasites and use mud and dust baths to try and get rid of them as well as to cool off.
  • Daily food intake is 4-7% of bodyweight which, when you are an elephant, equates to an awful lot of food.
  • A single elephant deposits upwards of 150kg of dung every day.
  • The ears have lots of blood pumping though them to cool the elephant down.
  • The more the ears flap the hotter the elephant is.
  • Elephants are herbivores and therefore only eat grasses, herbs, fruit, plants and trees.
  • Their brain weighs 4-6 kg
  • The life span is very similar to humans; living to between 60 and 70 years.
  • Females can give birth to as many as 12 offspring and generally start breeding at 15/16 years of age.
  • The gestation period is 22 months.
  • Males come into their prime at 30-35 years of age and experience periods of ‘Musth’, which is when they concentrate on finding females. This can last for six months in the dominant males and they will often stop feeding for days at a time during this period.
  • They can walk up to 195 km per day, although the average is only 25 km.
  • Speeds of 40mph can be reached.
  • Elephant have six sets of teeth that grow one set after another, throughout their lives. By the time they reach their 50s, most elephant have started to use their final set.
  • Elephants once populated the whole of Africa.
  • There are three species of elephant in the world:

    o African savanna, Loxodonta africana

    o African forest, Loxodonta cyclotis

    o Asian, Elephas maximus

  • They inhabit 37 African countries and 13 Asian.
  • Closest relative is the Hyraxes, Aardvarks and Manatees.

Elephant at Sunset - ©Justin Eleazer

Thanks to Elephants for Africa for the above information.  By the way, you may wonder what the research objectives of that organization are.  For your further education, here is the answers:

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES of Elephants For Africa:

  • Botswana is home to the largest remaining elephant population in the world. This project will provide information to enable a realistic elephant conservation programme to be implemented in Botswana, ensuring that this population remains for generations to come.
  • Address a priority research concern of the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism.
  • Investigate the viability of the release of adolescent habituated males into the area.
  • Address the long-term issues that face EBS and other captive elephants, as well as the ethical implications of translocation and repopulation programmes throughout Africa.
  • Monitor and analyse the behaviour of adolescent males. In particular, the departure and subsequent integration of pubescent males from their natal herd into the complex social structure of adult males, an area of research that has received little attention to date. Information on this important aspect of elephant ecology can only advance our understanding and therefore, the conservation of these majestic animals.
  • Monitor and analyse the population dynamics and movements of elephant in and around NG 26 in the Okavango Delta.
  • Determine habitat utilization. All encounters with elephants are logged, recording location, numbers, sex and age and habitat selection. The affects of season, sex and age on habitat utilisation will be analyzed.

How Can You Help?

Elephants for Africa research monitors the elephants of the Okavango Delta Botswana, releases captive elephants into the wild and provides vital information for their long-term conservation. All proceeds go towards the running costs of the field research.

There are several ways you can help Elephant Research :