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Wild Fridays: The Big 5: The African Bush Elephant

ORDER: Proboscidea

FAMILY: Elephantidae

SPECIES: Loxodonta africana

African Elephant / Afrikaanse olifant


I think we all know what elephants are and look like. They are huge, the largest land animal, weighing up to 6 Tons. They are covered in a greyish thick skin. They have huger ears, similar to the shape of Africa and large tusks growing out from each side of the mouth - ivory. (I have heard some guides explaining they are called African elephants because of the shape of the ears. Not so sure about that but please correct me if I am wrong. I think its probably closer to the fact that they are found on the African continent.)

Elephants also have a very long "modified" nose protruding from the mouth. Elephants belong to the animal order Proboscidea meaning fused upper lip and nose. We call it a trunk. It is an amazing everyday multi-tool with a host of uses. Some of these functions are breathing and breathing while swimming, picking up things, breaking off tree branches and stripping vegetation, ripping grass from the earth and shaking off the sand, blowing dust and mud onto their skin as a sunscreen and sucking up water to be released into the mouth. It is made up of 6 muscle units containing 1000's of muscle fibres. The trunk has two "fingers" at its base which are sensitive and can pick up objects as small as tree seeds and nuts. The trunk is used for communication, identifying animal scents, other elephants, as well as any dangerous threat, be it man or animal.

The tusks also have many uses like scraping bark off trees and gouging earth when searching for ground water and extending small water holes. Even levelling earth and making steps to help stuck baby elephants climb out of a muddy water hole. Tusks are also used in defence and attack.

Another organ on this adorable beast are the temporal glands which are located on each side of the head, between the ear and the eye. Often a dark streak is running out of this gland. The temporal gland is a good indicator of the emotional state of the elephant, and it is one of the signs safari guides use to determine whether it is safe or not to approach an elephant. More about that later.

They have thick strong legs, the feet in the front are round and have five toe nails! Back feet are oval in shape with four toe nails! The soles of the feet are very sensitive pads which enable elephants to walk silently as well as sense vibrations on the ground. One may estimate the height of an elephant based on the size of it's foot. - those details you will find out when you are on tour with Move Safaris! The tallest bull recorded stood 4 metres at shoulder height and weighed around 10 Tons! So don't chase elephants with your VW Polo, its not a fair contest.

Life as a elephant

Elephant calve's are usually born in early summer, roughly two years after the mating season. That's right ladies, almost two years gestation period. Elephants have been known to live up to 60 years of age. A baby elephant weighs about 120 kg and is just under 1 metre tall. Calves are prone to be attacked by spotted hyena's and lions, but they are also very well protected and cared for by the mothers and relatives in the family. Adult elephants are predated on by lions, but this is usually when the elephant is sick or severely injured.

Above: On a early morning game drive in Kruger National Park I saw this this lion was looking rather timid, he had a slight limp. He was most likely trying to grab one of the calves during the night and as a result felt the might of mother elephant. He and another male were hanging around the elephants.

Above:(Addo Elephant National Park)The close bond between mother and calf. Older experienced females will also tend to the calf and assist the younger mother.

Females mature between 9-18 years and they stay in their original family unit. Males are usually chased out of their family unit when the become too rough to play with the rest of the young, this is usually around 13/14 years. Males will join an older male with other male elephants and will be taught life skills. As are the females in their nuclear family group.

Elephants are very social and use the trunk to touch, taste and smell, entwining trunks when meeting and greeting and stroking the face and mouth area and temporal glands. It is a touching experience to observe elephants in social bonding. Elephants also communicate vocally through a range of squeals and high pitched trumpeting but about 3/4 of their vocal communication is at frequencies too low for us to hear. One we do hear are the "tummy rumbles". Some of these calls are audible up to 5 km away.

Above: Old elephant bull in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve. This bull is often seen near the river, where there is good easy grazing. Once elephants have worn out all their sets of replacement teeth, they stay in areas where the vegetation is palatable. Eventually they starve to death.

Elephants live in just about all types of habitats and African elephants once roamed the entire African continent. Pygmy elephants are found in West Africa, as well as forest elephants in the Congo.

Above: Elephant using its trunk to spray dust over itself. Kruger National Park

Above: Elephant using its trunk to release water into its mouth. An adult can suck up 10 to 11 litres of water at one time. The trunk of an adult weighs about

Warning signs from elephants

While touring in South Africa you may come across annoyed elephants. Move Safaris tour guides are well trained and experienced and are aware of the tell tale signs of annoyed elephants. The following tips are useful if you are doing a self drive trip. Before reading please note there are not many elephant attacks, this is just to give you some tips! So don't be nervous.

Standing tall and holding its head high

Ears stretched out wide and or profuse flapping - (not to be confused with fanning itself on a hot day to keep cool)

Kicking dust

Head shaking

Mock charge - If an elephant runs towards aggressively with its ears fanned out and trunk swinging from side to side- it is coming for you! A mock charge is intended to asses if you are a threat and to scare you off. Move away, it might not stop on the next charge!

Real charge - This is when the elephant feels the need to defend itself or its family and it intends to get rid of the threat. If you are the threat you are in a pickle! The ears will be flat against its head and the trunk curled inwards. DO NOT get out of your car,DO NOT rev your cars engine. Stay calm and drive away as fast as possible even if you have to do it in reverse gear! Without crashing into anything or anyone else make distance between yourself and the elephant.

These are all warnings that you are too close for comfort. The elephants might have been stressed all night by lions or something else and you being near is stressing them out more.

The best advice when viewing elephants is to give them room, don't force your presence upon them, its simple at least 50 to 100 metres if in a car or game drive vehicle. Don't block or corner elephants and always leave many escape routes. And that goes for any wild animal.

Always give elephants lots of space. Be extra cautious when there are young or baby elephants - so keep your eyes open, you might not see them at first. Stay in your car, unless at a view point where you are allowed to alight from your vehicle.

Out of all the game drives I have done, there were very few incidents where I could see the elephants were nervous because of our presence.

When all is calm and you are enjoying your elephant sighting, turn off the engine of your car. Yes, that might sound strange now, but the sound of a running engine is actually highly irritating to elephants. Sit back and relax and watch the African bush movie in real time... It is wonderful experience to sit and watch elephants.

Bulls in musth

From about 25 years of age elephant bulls go through a period of high testosterone levels - 6 times higher than usual. Signs of this are general aggression and determination. Constant dribbling of urine which stains the penis sheath and back legs a dark green. Very dark streaks from swollen temporal glands.

>>>Give this guy lots of room to move around and avoid going near or following him at all costs. These elephants are extremely dangerous. Elephant bulls in musth are looking for females to mate with. They will fight to the death over a female that is ready to mate.

>>>Out of all the millions of people that visit Kruger National Park, there are only a very few isolated incidents where elephants have charged people and harmed them. If you follow the safety tips and rules of the park you are visiting, you will be safe, and have nothing to fear. Remember, you are on their turf! The above is not to scare you, but rather to make you aware. When an elephant attacks a human in Kruger NP, it is put to death by the park officials so that it is not a threat in the future... Don't irritate the elephants!

Some more awesome interesting facts

- An elephants ears make up 20% of its total skin surface!

- Elephants cool blood flowing through the ears by 3 degrees celsius - by flapping their ears!

- Elephants eat roughly 150 kg per day and pooh out 100 kg per day!

- Elephants eat day and night!

- Elephants lie down to sleep!

- One elephant molar tooth weighs 5 kg!

-There are many more amazing facts about elephants, but you will have to book a seat with Move Safaris to hear them. I'm not going to give out in a blog!

Come see elephants in South Africa!

Move Tours and Safaris has a great tour showing you the best parts of South Africa. We visit 3 major wild life areas that have the Big 5 (with lots of elephants) and one special elephant rehabillitation centre. Visit our website or go straight to the tour description Epic South Africa Discovery Tour

About the author: Jonathan James Clements is a South African safari guide and travel writer. He currently resides in Switzerland from where he organises tours and safaris in Southern Africa, with a special focus on South Africa.

For inquiries email: or visit the website

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