Elephants are one of the most exciting and endearing of wild animals!

Most people know that modern elephants fall into two sub-species: the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). But few people can really explain the differences between the two -- other than continents of origin and perhaps ear size and shape.  Here's the low down on the two basic types:


African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

 Height: shoulder height of males up to approximately 13 feet high (290cm);

Weight: 13, 200 pounds (7,500 kg) maximum.

Body shape: Flat forehead.  Concave back (dips down, like a horse or cow).

Tusks: Large.    Present in both male and female.

Trunk: "Two-fingered".

Habitat: The largest living land animal, the African elephant lives both on the grasslands (savannahs) and in the forests. African elephants in grasslands regions tend to live in larger groups than those who live in the forests. In fact, savannah elephants may join together in loosely knit clans of up to 70 members! But most often they can be found roaming about in a basic family unit of about 10 elephants. According to the WWF, important populations of African elephants occur in Tanzania, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and probably in Congo, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus)

Height: 10 feet at shoulder

Weight: 14,000 pounds maximum.

Body shape: Two large bumps on forehead.
  Flat or rounded back.

Tusks: Small. Usually only present in males.

Trunk: "One-fingered".



Domestication: Asian elephants have been trained and domesticated by humans for thousands of years. They have been used in trade and construction for their abilities to lift and haul large or heavy loads, in transportation to add endurance and splendor to the travels of kings and warriors, and in entertainment events and religious rituals to infuse awe and power.


Habitat: Asian elephants live in a variety of habitats including open grasslands and marsh lands, but are better known as denizens of Asia's lush tropical forests.





Basic Facts About Elephants


Did you know...

 Elephants live approximately 70+ years.

Although massive, they can run at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour and trample almost anything in their way.

An elephant will lose and regrow its teeth six times during its lifetime.

A healthy adult elephant has little to fear from predators, except human beings.  It's greatest threats come from poachers and habitat loss.

Elephants can communicate with each other over great distances using infrasound, vocalizations that are at such low frequency they cannot be heard by the human ear.

 Elephants are highly intelligent creatures with very large and complexly organized brains.  Not only do they have the largest brain of any land animal, but the structure and complexity of their brains is similar to that of a human.

Unlike your dog or cat an elephant can actually reconize itself in a mirror.  Other animals that share this trait include dolphins, apes, magpies, and of course humans.

 Elephants are the largest land mammal yet their closest living cousin is the diminutive rock hyrax.  Another close relative is the manatee.

 Contrary to a popular old myth elephants are NOT afraid of mice, but they do try to avoid bees and ants. 

The skin of an elephant is about one inch thick yet so sensitive that it can feel a fly land.

 An elephant's trunk is prehensile, meaning that it can be used to grab, hold, and move objects.  An elephant's trunk has over 150,000 muslces but no bones.

Social Structure

  an elephant herd


Elephant society is organized into two main groups: a male-centered bachelor group and a female-centered family herd.

The female family herd is not exclusively female.  Baby males and young teenage males also live in this group.  But the group largely consists of adult females, their babies, their other female relatives (sisters, aunts, cousins) and their offspring.  Because this group is held together by ties to or between the adult females, or mothers, this group is also called "matrifocal", or mother centered.  The group is led by the most senior adult female, also known as the "matriarch". 

The matriarch has acquired decades of knowledge and experience that helps her lead the herd to the best feeding and watering sites during different seasons of the year and over vast distances.  If there is not enough food and water to support the entire family herd it will break up into smaller groups that can forage separately.  Matriarchs can use both scent gland secretions and infrasound (low frequency rumblings) to help them detect their sister bands even when many miles away. 

The male centered or "bachelor" herd is made up of adult males and the older teenage males.  Young males seem to follow a senior bull male, a kind of patriarch whom they watch and learn from.  

All male elephants start out life as babies living with their mother in the matrifocal group.  But as they mature they began straying from her more and more often and seeking out other young males.  Young males enjoy play fighting and testing their strength against each other, an activity that prepares them for the real battles they will engage in as older bulls.  By age thirteen or so these young males are ready to leave the protection and guidance of their mothers and aunties and begin their life in the bachelor herd.  A bachelor herd is usually made up of four or five bulls, but there may be as many as thirty roaming together.  

Although the two groups may live very far apart,  adult males know exactly when a female has entered into the rare and very brief stage during which she can can become pregnant (also known as "estrus"). Suddenly males appear as if out of nowhere, arriving right on time to mate with the receptive female.



Life Cycle

Like all mammals, an elephant starts it's life inside its mother's womb.   Like most large mammals, the elephant takes a long time to develop, requiring a long pregnancy or "gestation".   But elephant gestation takes much longer than any other mammal, on land or in the sea.  In fact it takes  an incredibly long 22 months to develop and grow before it is ready to be born. That's almost two years! 

But the mother elephant's work is still not done. She will spend the next five years nursing her baby and protecting it from predators as it learns the fundamentals of elephant life.  And even once the baby is weaned, it will continue to live with its mother and aunties.  The herd protects the still developing youngster and helps it find water holes, mud wallows, and good grazing and foraging sites.     

As noted above, in social structure, by the time a young male elephant hits puberty he will drift off to join a bachelor herd.  However if the adolescent is a young female elephant, she will continue to live in her mother's herd, learning from the older females and helping to look after her younger siblings and cousins.  By the time she is 12 to 14 years of age she will begin having her own babies

The young male elephant, meanwhile will not be ready to mate for another ten years.  And in fact, because access to females in estrus is fiercely fought over by the more senior bull elephants, he may not get a chance to reproduce until he is 35 or 40 years old!




Threats To Survival

Poaching:  Most people know that elephants have long been hunted for their ivory. In fact, in the 1970s half the elephant population of Africa disappeared ― ruthlessly slaughtered for their ivory tusks. But did you also know that in 1989, an international ban was imposed on the ivory trade? That means that while it is still legal to sell ivory within one's own country, it is illegal to export it to other countries (which is how the big money was made). Unfortunately, many tourists still purchase ivory trinkets and art objects while visiting African and Asian countries, and some people believe that it would be okay to allow some export of ivory, just to help out the economies of various African nations. Certainly we should not turn a deaf ear to the needs of our fellow humans, but is murdering such an exceptionally intelligent creature really the right solution?

 In addition to being threatened by the ivory trade, Asian elephants are also hunted for their hide and bone. In Thailand the hide is turned into shoes and hand bags. And in China the bone is is turned into bone ash and used in traditional medicines treating ulcers of the skin and stomach.

Habitat loss:  An even greater threat to elephants than poaching may be habitat loss. Nearly everywhere that elephants live, there are human beings looking to turn the elephants' wild feeding and breeding grounds into domestic farm and ranch land. An elephant is a very large animal. Grass and leaves are not very calorie rich foods. Therefore, an elephant herd requires a vast territory to range over in order to consume enough plant food without stripping their feeding area bare. As elephants are forced onto smaller and smaller range territories, there is greater and greater threat that the very trees, bushes, and grasslands that support the elephants will become so badly damaged that they will no longer be able to re-grow themselves and thus no longer be able to feed the elephants or all the other wild animals that feed there.

Habitat Fragmentation - Now that human beings have encroached so heavily on elephant habitats, it is not always possible for elephants to follow their normal migration paths. When elephants try to ignore the crops, fences, and other structures in their way, the local human residents get very alarmed.  Human attempts to drive elephants away sometimes leads  to elephants being injured, accidentally or deliberately. Similarly, the critical overlap of human and elephant habitats means that sometimes it is the elephants who accidentally harm the humans.

Even when the elephants are not being attacked however, this human disruption of the migration path is still doing harm.   First of all, elephants are unable to access the vast feeding areas that they need (see Habitat Loss, above).  And secondly, elephants may become cut off from other elephant groups or subgroups.  As a result family ties, social interaction, and mating are then disrupted. 

High Risk Capture Procedures In Asia many people would rather capture a wild elephant and train it than purchase one. Additionally, they find it much more attractive to have a large, productive adult elephant now, than to breed elephants and wait ten years for the babies to grow up.

But unfortunately, many of the methods of capture used too often result in the death of the elephant.  Thankfully programs are currently underway to encourage rural people to discontinue this risky methods, and to educate them successful methods of raising their own elephants. But providing information will not be enough. The fate of these wild elephants depends on the willingness of human beings to act with compassion and integrity. 






Interesting Links About Elephants

African Elephant

More fascinating facts about African Elephants from Nat Geo KIDS.


Elephant Anatomy

An exciting page that gives the "inside" story about elephants! Great animated illustrations and close up photos!


Field Notes

Read the field notes of real scientists studying elephants on location in Africa.

An Elephant Never Forgets...

Want to learn even more elephant facts?  Just watch this outstanding video from from IFAW!  This lengthy video is jam packed with fascinating information about all aspects of elephant life.

An Elephant Never Forgets








Our Favorite Books About Elephants



Elephant Walk
 Written by Jean Craighead George, Illustrated by Anna Vojtech

Poetic and heartwarming, this charming tale of a baby elephant named Odon introduces the reader into the subtle and sensual world of elephant family life. Young children will relate to Odon's struggle to master the everyday challenges that seem so simple for adults and older siblings-- they will also relate to his elation over his eventual success! But what makes this book far and away a winner is the fascinating two-page spread at the back of the book illustrating "Elephant Talk". Illustrations and text explain what elephants are communicating to each other when they engage in different postures and embraces. The best one is illustrated by the cover art above -- this mother elephant is saying, "I love you baby!" Written by Newberry Award winner Jean Craighead George, and magically illustrated by Czech born artist Anna Vojtech, this book is perfect for children aged 5-8. To buy this book, click here.



ELEPHANT WOMAN: Cynthia Moss Moss Explores The World Of Elephants.
by Laurence Pringle. Illustrated with photographs by Cynthia Moss.

 Meet Cynthia Moss, a renowned elephant researcher in Kenya, Africa. Learn about the family structure, social life, and communication processes of elephants, as well as the story of how Moss came to devote her life to the study of these fascinating animals. Engaging photographs accompany informative text. Index. Further Reading List





Woolly Mammoth: Life, Death, and Rediscovery Windsor Chorlton. Illustrated with photographs. 40pp. 

This story emphasizes the excitement and enormity of the project to excavate and remove a frozen woolly mammoth. The experience highlights the expertise and technology needed for such a venture. Several new discoveries are illustrated and old theories are reinforced. The project is brought to life by brilliant photographs and illustrations. Websites, Index, Mammoth Sites and Finds.


Elephant Quest
Written and illustrated by Ted and Betsy Lewin

Ted Lewin's realistic paintings and Betsy Lewin's field sketches illuminate this four-day, real-life trip to Moremi Reserve in Botswana, Africa. This work is an adventure story that introduces the reader to the region's wildlife and ecology. African Elephant Facts, Index.


The Elephant Book To benefit the Elefriends Campaign
by Ian Redmond. Illustrated with photographs.

We can replant forests, and even reclaim deserts in time, but no one, when the last elephant has gone, can make another." Biologist Ian Redmond pays tribute to the pachyderm in The Elephant Book, with breathtaking photos of the African landscape. Divided into sections such as "The Architect of Africa," "Trunks and Tusks" and "Peaceful Coexistence," and peppered with quotes from the likes of David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, the book seeks to stop the ivory trade and eliminate poaching. Half the royalties go to the Elefriends Campaign, an elephant protection group based in London.





Elephant Games, Crafts, & Activities


Activities to do at home or at school...

The Elephant Game

Increase attention span, promote body awareness and refine motor coordination, develop a keen sense of observation, and more!   No supplies needed!  6 or more players. This game works well for even large groups too.


Elephant Coloring Pages

A variety of pictures to print and color, from the silly and simple to the simply stunning.


Elephant Origami


Teaching Guide and Lessons

From IFAW.org, the International Fund for Animal Welfare.







Great Games!

Learn while you play,
 with these online games...

Elephant Odyssey

Travel back in time 200,000 years and guide your Columbian Mammoth on a journey as you test your knowledge of elephants in this animated trivia game.

Elephant Themed Games

Shockwave required.


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