Master Architects of the African Bush
Nothing, except maybe the lion, symbolizes Africa as much as the elephant does. Its strength and presence is the stuff of legends. Its violent nature when threatened makes it a member of the feared and revered Big Five, known as notoriously difficult to hunt.
Nowadays, the term Big Five isn’t associated with hunting anymore, but ironically, it comprises some of Africa’s most hunted and threatened species, including the mighty elephant.
The truth about elephants is that they’re not inherently violent creatures and are more deserving of respect and care than fear.
Keep reading to find out more about the African elephant and why it’s so important.
Elephants have a complex, ordered, matriarchal society. In the wild, they live in herds of 10 to 25 individuals led by a dominant cow and comprising her female relatives and their offspring.
The matriarch is usually the oldest female in the herd and responsible for leading her subjects to water and good grazing areas.
The primary purpose of the elephant herd is to protect and care for their young and these large mammals all cooperate to protect and nourish the calves. In general, the more females present, the greater the survival rate of the young.
During times of plenty, herds of female elephants will gather together to enhance their calf-rearing abilities. Most elephant interactions are peaceful and cooperative.
Mature bull elephants roam the landscapes, usually in smaller groups or alone, traveling from herd to herd in search of receptive females.
These habits reduce conflict between male elephants and ensure they can maximize reproductive efficiency and diversity. Male elephants rarely associate with breeding herds but may spend time with herds that have no relation to them.
The Life Cycle of the African Elephant
Elephant gestation spans 22 months and the calves are about a meter tall at birth, and weigh about 100kg. The female gives birth standing up and the calf can walk around and start suckling within minutes of its arrival.
Although they’re weaned at around one or two years of age, they will suckle occasionally until their mother delivers a new calf, usually around the age of four or five years old.
Elephants reach sexual maturity between 12 and 15 years of age. At this point the males leave the herd, but the females remain part of their original herd all their life.
In the natural world, elephants live for up to 60 years, passing down their wisdom from generation to generation along the way. They migrate throughout their lives, roaming in great cycles across familiar lands in search of food and water.
African Elephant Population and Distribution
Way back in time, Africa was home to over 5 million elephants. A recent census by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) shows that the world’s population of African elephants has declined to 415,000. That’s thanks to habitat destruction, poaching, and hunting, by human beings.
This places elephants firmly on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of vulnerable species overall, although they’re critically endangered in some areas.
The good news is that poaching activities seem to be declining, thanks to the efforts of African governments and charitable organizations, both in Africa and worldwide.
Thanks to their efforts, southern Africa is currently home to 70% of African elephants, with Botswana having more elephants than any other African country, followed by Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa.
Everywhere else, wild African elephants remain vulnerable to exploitation and potential extinction.
Why is it Important to Conserve Elephants?
Elephants are ecosystem architects. That means they’re responsible for ensuring Africa’s wild spaces are managed the way nature intended.
It’s easy to see where elephants have gone before. They litter the ground with their huge mounds of dung leaving a trail of broken branches, leaves, and sometimes trees in their wake.
These seemingly destructive traits are exactly what the bush needs to preserve its delicate ecological balance.
Elephant Dung is Full of the Good Stuff
Elephants can consume over 300kg of plant material daily, including roots, grass, fruits, bark, seed pods, and leaves. All their food goes into a single stomach, where they digest the good stuff and eliminate the indigestible fibrous content in their dung. Due to this, elephant dung is exceptionally rich in minerals.
Small insects like dung beetles rely on elephant dung for most of their nutrition, breaking it down as they feed and distributing these minerals into the soil.
Elephants Ensure Plant Species Diversity
Elephant excrement also contains large amounts of indigestible seeds from a wide variety of plants. As far as they go, elephants drop these seeds in a nice fertile patch of dung, helping to make up for any plants they destroy with their foraging habit.
In this way, as they stroll through the bush passing dung rich with seeds, elephants contribute to the genetic diversity of plants, bushes, and trees, ensuring the survival of strong, healthy plant populations.
Elephants Help Other Animals Survive
During dry seasons, smaller animals quickly obliterate the leaves within their reach. When elephants knock trees over, they place a smorgasbord of good nutrition within the reach of these browsers.
The fallen trees also create new habitats for insects, birds, rodents, and small mammals. As they decay, the trees add massive amounts of nutrients to the soil.
When it comes to water, elephants don’t take no for an answer. They can dig deep into dry riverbeds using their feet, trunks, and tusks to discover underground water.
Once they’ve drunk their fill, they leave a vital source of water for smaller, less resourceful animals.
These important contributions make elephants a keystone species which play a vital role in preserving biodiversity, wherever they roam.
African Elephant Conservation
Organizations like the WWF work tirelessly with conservation authorities to help improve elephant protection and management by building capacity in related states, mitigating human-animal conflict, and combating poaching.
Other organizations with the African elephant’s best interests at heart include national conservation associations, as well as privately-run charities like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, International Elephant Foundation, Elephant Aid International, and Save the Elephants.
If you want to ensure the ongoing survival of these magnificent and fascinating creatures, you can donate directly to one of these organizations.
Where to see Elephants on Your Trip to Southern Africa
One of the most rewarding ways to help African elephants is by visiting one of the bastions of conservation set up to protect them.
When you travel to these destinations, you’ll gain a better understanding of these creatures, get to admire them in person, and learn to truly appreciate why we must do everything we can to conserve them.
Some of the best places to see elephants in Southern Africa are:
- Addo Elephant Park, South Africa
- Etosha National Park, Namibia
- Kruger National Park, South Africa
- Chobe National Park, Botswana
- Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
- South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
- Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe
- Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana
- Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area
You’ll also find many smaller and private game reserves located close to these elephant hotspots.
When you visit these conservation centers, you’re contributing directly to the welfare of the park’s personnel and ensuring these reserves have the resources they need to continue their efforts.
Tourism is a major income generator for many people living in proximity to conservation areas, and helps these people understand how important wildlife is to their livelihoods. In this way, you’re also making your own contribution toward reducing human-wildlife conflict in these areas.
In many cases, you’ll pay a conservation fee when you visit a national park or game reserve. This money goes directly towards greater conservation efforts across the region.
Most importantly, when you travel to Africa and return home to share your wonderful experiences with friends and family, or post your adventures on social media, you’re creating a growing awareness of conservation and promoting tourism.
Discover More Reasons to Visit Africa
Most tourists to Africa can’t quite put their finger on why they enjoy their time spent on the continent so much. An African safari presents encounters with wild animals like elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, and buffalo that are difficult to describe.
We’ve tried our best to do just that in our Travel Guide, and you’ll find much useful information in these articles, but the best way to understand Africa, its people, and its creatures is by visiting yourself.
Get your indescribable getaway started by booking your accommodation at Arebbusch Travel Lodge, where you can immerse yourself in Africa right from the start of your trip.
Please Note: The details shared herein were correct at the time of publishing. However, with time some of this information may change. We recommend confirming information with suppliers prior to making final travel arrangements. If you do happen to find an issue with any information we’ve shared here, please feel free to contact us so that we can make the relevant changes.