Discovering African Elephants

Discovering African Elephants

Pre-Colonial Days

In pre-colonial days the African elephant used to occupy the whole of South Africa, right down to the Southern Cape. Gradually through hunting and loss of habitat to agriculture and human pressure, elephants were wiped out leaving a few remnant populations in places such as the Knysna Forest and the Lowveld areas of Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

Image Source G Howells
Image Source G Howells

In KwaZulu-Natal elephants were totally eliminated with the exception of occasional excursions of a small number of animals from the Maputo Elephant Reserve in Mozambique into what is now Tembe Elephant Park and occasionally into Ndumo Game Reserve.


This all changed in the late seventies and eighties. The National Parks Board, or San Parks as it is now known, was managing elephant numbers in the Kruger National Park by intensive culling programmes. Whole family groups were killed with the exception of young calves of approximately six years of age. These animals were caught and held in capture bomas until they could be sold for reintroduction to protected areas where elephants had previously occurred.

In KwaZulu-Natal these young animals were introduced to the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, Ithala Game Reserve, Mkhuze Game Reserve and Lake St Lucia. With the proclamation of Tembe Elephant Reserve, the elephants that had moved between Mozambique and Northern Zululand became permanent residents of Tembe, protected now from the constant harassment from people that had caused them to be nomadic.

Image Source G Howells
Image Source G Howells

Elephants have a very long development. As is common with more intelligent species, they are born with fewer survival instincts than many other animals. Instead, they rely on their elders to teach them what they need to know.

Problems Encountered

The impact of using founder populations of six and seven year old elephants caused major problems in all the protected areas they were introduced to. Rather like the children in the novel “Lord of the Flies” these elephants grew up with no guidance and made their own rules. As they developed in size and strength, they killed a number of rhino in places like Pilansberg Game Reserve, damaged infrastructure and were a constant danger to visiting tourists because of their unpredictability.

Conservation authorities found that the only solution to this problem was to bring in mature elephants of both sexes who would act as mentors or teachers. This was done in virtually all the areas where these young elephants were introduced, successfully.

Moving elephants to new areas, even mature animals, is not without its problems. The elephants introduced to Lake St Lucia came from the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park. They were released on the eastern shores of the lake but decided that it did not suit them. They waded across the lake to the western shores and some of them walked all the way back to Hluhluwe where they were allowed to remain.

Species and Distribution

Three living species of elephant are recognized, the African savannah elephant, the African forest elephant, and the Indian or Asian elephant. The Asian elephant is divided into 4 subspecies which occur on the Asian mainland, Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Borneo.

Asian elephants are smaller than the African, have smaller ears and a convex or rounded back. The Asian elephant is covered with more hair than its African counterpart.

Trunk Uses

Image Source G Howells
Image Source G Howells

The proboscis, or trunk, is a fusion of the nose and upper lip, elongated and specialized to become the elephant’s most important and versatile appendage. African elephants are equipped with two finger-like projections at the tip of their trunk, while Asians have only one. The elephant’s trunk is sensitive enough to pick up a single blade of grass, yet strong enough to rip the branches off a tree. Elephants always use their trunks to tear up their food and then place it in their mouths. They will graze on grass or reach up into trees to grasp leaves, fruit, or entire branches. If the desired food item is too high up, the elephant will wrap its trunk around the tree or branch and shake its food loose or sometimes simply knock the tree down altogether.

The trunk is also used for drinking. Elephants suck water up into the trunk—up to 14 litres at a time—and then blow it into their mouths. Elephants also suck up water to spray on their bodies during bathing. On top of this watery coating, the animals will then spray dirt and mud, which dries and acts as a protective sunscreen. When swimming, the trunk makes an excellent snorkel.

Social Interaction

This appendage also plays a key role in many social interactions. Familiar elephants will greet each other by entwining their trunks, much like a handshake. They also use them while play-wrestling, caressing during courtship and mother-child interactions. They are used for dominance displays with a raised trunk a warning or threat, while a lowered trunk can be a sign of submission. Elephants can defend themselves very well by flailing their trunks at unwanted intruders or by grasping and flinging them.

An elephant also relies on its trunk for its highly developed sense of smell. By raising the trunk up in the air and swivelling it from side to side, like a periscope, it can determine the location of friends, enemies, and food sources. The complete trunk can have up to 150,000 separate muscle fascicles, giving it strength and flexibility.

Like humans who are typically right or left-handed, elephants are usually right or left-tusked. The dominant tusk, called the master tusk, is generally shorter and more rounded at the tip from wear.

The large flapping ears of an elephant are very important for temperature regulation. Elephant ears are made of a very thin layer of skin stretched over cartilage and a rich network of blood vessels. On hot days, elephants will flap their ears constantly, creating a slight breeze. This breeze cools the surface blood vessels, and then the cooler blood gets circulated to the rest of the animal’s body.

Breeding and Communication

Female elephant social life revolves around breeding and raising of the calves. A female will usually be ready to breed around the age of thirteen and the gestation period is approximately 22 months.

Image Source G Howells
Image Source G Howells

Elephants can communicate over long distances by producing and receiving low-frequency sound (infrasound), a sub-sonic rumbling, which can travel in the air and through the ground much farther than higher frequencies. These calls range in frequency from 15–35 Hz and can be as loud as 117 dB, allowing communication for many kilometres, with a possible maximum range of around 10 km.

This sound can be felt by the sensitive skin of an elephant’s feet and trunk, which pick up the resonant vibrations much as the flat skin on the head of a drum. To listen attentively, every member of the herd will lift one foreleg from the ground, and face the source of the sound, or often lay its trunk on the ground. The lifting presumably increases the ground contact and sensitivity of the remaining legs. This ability is thought also to aid their navigation by use of external sources of infrasound. Discovery of this new aspect of elephant social communication and perception came with breakthroughs in audio technology, which can pick up frequencies outside the range of the human ear.


Both types of elephant migrate, sometimes over significant distances. Because of their size and the amount of food they have to consume, they soon strip an area of suitable vegetation and have to move on. The growth of human populations and agriculture have closed off many of the elephants traditional migration routes and caused a huge amount of conflict with people trying to protect their crops.

Elephants are herbivores and spend up to 16 hours a day eating plants. Their diets are highly variable, both seasonally and across habitats and regions. Elephants are primarily browsers, feeding on the leaves, bark and fruits of trees and shrubs, but they may also eat considerable amounts of grasses and herbs. Elephants only digest approximately 40% of what they eat, and make up for their digestive systems’ lack of efficiency in volume. An adult elephant consumes 140–270 kg of food a day.

Every day across Africa and Asia, elephants disperse billions of seeds, some of which will grow into the forests of tomorrow, sequestering and storing carbon, generating rainfall and stabilising our climate.

Other animals, such as Baboons may pick through elephant dung looking for undigested seeds. Dung beetles and termites both eat elephant dung.


Elephants can have profound impacts on the ecosystems they occupy with both positive and negative effects on other species, especially with their foraging activities. By pulling down trees to eat leaves, breaking branches and pulling out roots, they reduce woody cover, creating clearings in forests, converting forests to savannas and converting savannas to grasslands. These changes tend to benefit grazers at the expense of browsers.

During the dry season, elephants use their tusks to dig into river beds to reach underground sources of water. These holes may then become essential sources of water for other species.

Elephants make paths through their environment that are used by other animals. Some of these pathways have apparently been used by multiple generations of elephants, used by humans and eventually even been converted to roads. A well documented example of this is the road down the Zambezi Escarpment from Makuti to Kariba in Zimbabwe.

 Article courtesy of Glynne Howels, KZN Wildlife

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