The African elephant is a staple of safari iconography, identified just as easily in silhouette as they are in person. Their tall profile, broad backs, sweeping trunks and prominent tusks all make them a unique combination of features unlike anything else on the planet. Many people travel thousands of miles to African countries just to get a glimpse of these huge, majestic beasts.
You can join their ranks and have a camera roll filled with snaps of wild elephant herds when you go an African safari tour and tell your guide that seeing elephants is your priority. Here are some interesting facts to help your search while also helping you understand just how amazing and special the elephant is.
Physical Traits of the African Elephant
African bush elephants are the largest land animal on the planet. Males typically grow to between 10 and 13 feet tall at their shoulder and weigh anywhere from 5,000 to 14,000 lbs. The largest recorded individual was 13.1 ft tall at its shoulders and weighed nearly 22,000 lbs!
Their prehensile trunks can grow seven feet long and weigh up to 400 lbs. These appendages are truly remarkable, acting like a fifth limb used for everything from picking off foliage to moving tree trunks to even acting like a snorkel or a straw.
Zoologists estimate that the trunk has over 100,000 muscles and tendons inside of it, which give it both an incredible amount of strength and substantial dexterity. African elephants have two finger-like “tip” projections on the end of their trunk, which is used to grasp objects as well as feel about with its sense of touch.
Of course, this schnozzola can be used to smell just like ours can. An elephant will raise their trunk into the air and wave it around to gather scent particles like a radar array gathers data. Small scent particles are trapped in the hairs inside the trunk and brought to a highly refined scent gland known as Jacobson’s organ on the roof of the mouth. They can use this organ to detect sexually active females up to 12 miles away. Some trainers are experimenting by using the African elephant’s highly sensitive scent glands to detect explosives or poachers, turning the tables on the people who wish to hunt them into extinction.
These poachers want to hunt them for their valuable ivory tusks. Tusks are incisor teeth modified through generations of evolution to form tools for the elephant. They will use them to dig in the ground, scrape bark off trees, lift objects and other tasks. Males also use them when charging, but bull elephants are more likely to intimidate with their large tusks than risk injury in a full-on charge.
Subspecies of African Elephant
- Savannah or Bush Elephant — These elephants are the largest subspecies and can be found across the grassy savannah plains throughout southern and central Africa.
- Forest Elephant — These African elephants are actually considered a separate species by some taxonomists because of their divergent DNA and evolutionary heritage. They are smaller, have darker skin and spend less time foraging compared to their larger bush counterparts.
- Desert Elephants — These African elephants are not a true subspecies but rather a sub-community that has become partially adapted to dry conditions. They are mostly found in Namibia, but their populations have become extremely threatened by poaching.
Where to Find Elephants on an African Safari Tour
Although their territories have been interrupted by deforestation, poaching and other risks, African elephant populations are still fortunately widespread across the continent. You can find herds roaming Kruger Park in South Africa, the Okavango Delta or Chobe National Park in Botswana, the Amboseli National Park in Kenya and many other locations.
Book your elephant safari today by looking at our comprehensive African safari tour packages.
Jill Liphart for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa