Skip to content
Elephant family. © John Michael Vosloo / Shutterstock

Elephant family. © John Michael Vosloo / Shutterstock

African elephants

Majestic megafauna in big trouble


The African elephant is the largest living land mammal and one of the world’s most iconic animals. No one coming face to face with an African elephant in the wild could fail to be awestruck by its colossal size, raw power, magnetic presence and sheer majesty. The fact that such a creature even exists should be a source of amazement. The fact that its future is in jeopardy should be a wake-up call to us all.

African elephants have recently been recognised as two distinct species: savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) and forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). They are now categorised, respectively, as Endangered and Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Fascinating facts about African elephants 

    Ten tonnes

    The weight of the largest recorded African elephant, which reached four metres high at the shoulder.

    African elephant. © Timur Jack-Kadioglu

    African elephant. © Timur Jack-Kadioglu

    Gender equality

    Unlike Asian elephants, both male and female African elephants have tusks.


    The number of muscles in an elephant’s trunk – that’s more than 100 times the number in a human’s entire body. 

    African elephants. © Timur Jack-Kadioglu

    African elephants. © Timur Jack-Kadioglu

    Mum's the word

    African elephants live in matriarchal social families consisting of closely related females and their calves.

    Keep the noise down

    Elephants can communicate over long distances using low-frequency calls, and two-thirds of these are below the range of human hearing.

What is the difference between savannah and forest elephants? 

Forest elephants used to be classified as a rarer subspecies of African elephant, but experts argued that they should be treated as a distinct species. They have now been officially separated. As their names suggest, savannah elephants and forest elephants favour very different habitat, but there are also clear physical differences between them. African forest elephants are shorter and less bulky than their savannah counterparts. They have smaller ears, straighter and more downward-facing tusks, and darker skin.

An African forest elephant being fitted with a satellite tracking collar in Guinea. © Ruben Bañuelos Bons / Fauna & Flora

An African forest elephant being fitted with a satellite tracking collar in Guinea. © Ruben Bañuelos Bons / Fauna & Flora

Fitting a tracking collar to monitor the movements of one of Guinea's last surviving forest elephants, in order to reduce the threat posed by conflict with humans.

The amazing anatomy of an African elephant 

An elephant’s trunk is such a familiar feature that we take it for granted, but it’s one of the wonders of the natural world. This portable toolkit can pick up a peanut or uproot a tree. It’s a keen nose, suction pump, power shower, telescopic arm, snorkel, trumpet, fly swatter and lethal weapon rolled into one. 

Elephants have poor eyesight but their sense of smell is three times sharper than a bloodhound’s. They can sniff out food and water from miles away. The enormous ears of savannah elephants prevent them from overheating in the baking temperatures. they act as giant fans when flapped, and release heat through a vast network of blood vessels close to the skin. 

The tusks that have made elephants a prime target for ivory poachers are actually massive incisor teeth protruding from their upper jaw. Elephants use them to dig for water and minerals, strip bark from trees, lift and move heavy objects, protect their trunk, and defend themselves. 

African elephants have brains three times the size of ours, a proverbially great memory, and cognitive powers on a par with chimps and dolphins. They show empathy and even bury and mourn their dead.

African elephant. © Stephanie Foote Media

African elephant. © Stephanie Foote Media

Elephants have a keen sense of smell and can detect food and water over vast distances.

What do African elephants eat? 

African elephants can consume up to 300 kilos of food a day. They also ingest salts to neutralise the toxins in leaves and bark. Elephants have a varied vegetarian diet that includes leaves, shoots, bark, grass, fruits and seeds, but they have particular preferences and dislikes. As a result, elephants have a huge influence on which plants dominate, disperse or disappear within a local ecosystem.

Why are African elephants important? 

African elephants have a significant physical impact on their environment. They make wide paths, enlarge waterholes, plough the soil and create caves as they dig for salt. As such, they are both keystone species. African forest elephants, in particular, play a crucial role as seed dispersers and forest gardeners. They also help to combat climate change: foraging in herds, they trample or consume huge quantities of saplings and smaller trees. By thinning out the vegetation, they promote the growth of the bigger trees, which capture and store the greatest amount of carbon.

A family of elephants. © Stephanie Foote Media

A family of elephants. © Stephanie Foote Media

A family of African savannah elephants wandering across typical habitat in Kenya.

Where do African elephants live? 

Savannah elephants favour grasslands, deserts and other open landscapes. Their main strongholds are in southern and eastern Africa, but populations survive in over 20 countries. Forest elephants inhabit dense tropical forest in Central Africa and a wider range of forested habitats in West Africa. The range of Africa’s two elephant species seldom overlaps, but both species are known to occur in countries including South Sudan.

How many African elephants are left?

Less than 50 years ago, there were well over a million elephants in Africa – a figure that includes savannah and forest elephants. Today, around 350,000 savannah elephants remain. Forest elephants are obviously far harder to count, but numbers are estimated to have fallen by an astonishing 86% in just 30 years.

What threats do African elephants face? 

With the exception of a pride of lions famed for its elephant-killing exploits, adult African elephants have no natural predators. The only threats they face are human-related. 

Traditionally the major cause of the African elephant’s decline has been poaching for ivory. While this still remains a threat, other issues caused by rapid human population growth have emerged.


The ivory trade has historically taken a huge toll on African elephants, leading to their extermination in many parts of the continent. Today, African elephants are hunted for meat as well as for their ivory, particularly in West and Central Africa where the commercial bushmeat trade has exploded in recent years.

Habitat loss 

African elephants and humans are increasingly competing for space. Urban expansion, agricultural conversion and extractive activities are destroying and degrading elephant habitat. In arid regions, elephants face competition from domestic livestock for food and water. In West and Central Africa, habitat loss and fragmentation is affecting the traditional havens and migration routes of forest elephants, forcing them to venture beyond their shrinking forest home.

Conflict with humans 

Increasing contact between elephants and humans leads to conflict that can prove fatal for both sides. Crop-raiding and other property damage may lead to revenge killings. Elephants outside their natural habitat may also fall victim to opportunistic poaching. 

Deforestation. © Ruben Bañuelos Bons / Fauna & Flora

Deforestation. © Ruben Bañuelos Bons / Fauna & Flora

Aerial view showing habitat destruction near one of the West Africa's last forest elephant strongholds, Guinea's Ziama Massif.

How can we help save African elephants?

Fauna & Flora and our in-country partners are taking action to safeguard both African elephant species at project sites across the continent.

In West Africa, Fauna & Flora is adopting a transboundary approach to the conservation of forest elephants, which move freely between countries. Our efforts focus on the forest landscape of Ziama-Wonegizi-Wologizi-Foya, which straddles the border between Guinea and Liberia. This landscape offers one of the last viable and intact habitats for West Africa’s forest elephants. Fauna & Flora is strengthening forest and species protection and maintaining connectivity between these forest areas, only some of which are officially protected.

In the Ziama forest – a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve containing the last remaining population of forest elephants in Guinea – we are supporting the development and implementation of a management plan, which is essential for good governance, effective law enforcement and biomonitoring. In Liberia, we are working with the government to implement the National Elephant Action Plan, and supporting the wildlife authority and communities on governance and management of protected and proposed protected areas.

In southern Africa, Fauna & Flora is working with community and government partners to tackle the illegal wildlife trade crisis that threatens savannah elephants in Mozambique’s vast Niassa National Reserve. We have strengthened anti-poaching measures in Chuilexi Conservancy, which forms a key section of Niassa, reducing elephant casualties to virtually zero. In the face of intense poaching, Chuilexi serves as a vital refuge for Niassa’s elephants and harbours up to a quarter of the country’s remaining elephant population.

In South Sudan, Fauna & Flora has both species of African elephant on its radar. We are working with communities and Wildlife Service rangers to strengthen the protection and management of key wildlife strongholds that separately harbour forest elephants and savannah elephants.

Elephant. © Stephanie O'Donnell

Save African elephants

Together, we can safeguard Africa’s savannah and forest elephants against extinction.

Please support our efforts to protect these magnificent giants.

Donate today

Elephant. © Stephanie O'Donnell