Working with the people of Africa to ensure that Africa’s wildlife and wild lands will endure forever

Elephants might be the most well-known and well-loved animal in the line-up of African wildlife. But conservation of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) poses special challenges. While the overall elephant population is half of what it was 40 years ago, some regions of Africa have more elephants than populated areas can support. That’s why the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) is studying elephant behaviors, protecting habitats, and finding ways for humans to co-exist with elephants peacefully in Africa.

The Challenge

Years ago, over-hunting and the ivory trade were the biggest threats to elephants’ survival. Fortunately, ivory bans, hunting regulations, and protected areas safeguard elephants from these pressures today. The 21st century brings an entirely different challenge to elephant conservation ­ land-use. Elephants roam over vast territories ­ across borders and outside parks and other protected areas. Unfortunately, elephants often range directly through human settlements and crops, causing discord between local farmers and these big mammals. Successful conservation strategies must allow elephants to range freely in their natural habitats while reducing crop-raiding and other conflicts between elephants and local people and encourage peaceful co-existence.

Helping Elephants Thrive ­ the AWF Solution

AWF is helping elephants thrive by:

- Conducting state-of-the-art research, like satellite-tracking elephants using GPS in the Kilimanjaro Heartland
- Protecting wildlife corridors and other transboundary habitats;
- Working with local communities to develop economic incentives that encourage locals to protect rather than destroy elephants.

Giving Elephants the Space they Need

In the Kilimanjaro Heartland, the variety of land-use patterns ­ including parks, subsistence agriculture and Maasai pastoralism and settlements ­ means that elephants are coming into more frequent conflict with humans.

AWF Elephant Researcher and Charlotte Fellow Alfred Kikoti is searching for a way to give both elephants and people the space they need. By collaring 10 elephants with GPS technology, Kikoti is collecting data on elephant habitats and movement patterns.

The information he gathers will help AWF and its partners develop conservation strategies that will give migrating animals in this transboundary area the widest berth possible.

   Click here for a map detailing elephant movement in AWF’s Kilimanjaro Heartland.


Physical Characteristics

The African elephant is the largest living land mammal. Of all its specialized features, the muscular trunk is perhaps the most extraordinary. It serves as a nose, hand, extra foot, signaling device and tool for gathering food, siphoning water, dusting, and digging. The tusks are another notable feature of both males and females. Elephants are right or left-tusked, using the favored tusk more often, thus shortening it from constant wear. Tusks differ in size, shape and angle and researchers can use them to identify individuals.

For Africa’s elephants, keeping a low profile is not easy. These magnificent creatures can rise to 11’ in height and weigh up to 6 tons.


Elephants can live in nearly any habitat that has adequate quantities of food and water. Their ideal habitat consists of plentiful grass and browse.


Elephants are gregarious and form small family groups consisting of an older matriarch and several generations of relatives. These family groups are often visited by mature males, who check for females in estrus. Several interrelated family groups may inhabit an area and know each other well. When they meet at watering holes and feeding places, they greet each other affectionately.

Smell is the most highly developed sense, but sound deep growling or rumbling noises is the principle means of communication. Some researchers think that each individual has its signature growl by which it can be distinguished. Sometimes elephants communicate with an ear-splitting blast when in danger or alarmed, causing others to form a protective circle around the younger members of the family group. Elephants make low-frequency calls, many of which, though loud, are too low for humans to hear. These sounds allow elephants to communicate with one another at distances of five or six miles.

Usually only one calf is born to a pregnant female. An orphaned calf will usually be adopted by one of the family's lactating females or suckled by various females. Elephants are very attentive mothers, and because most elephant behavior has to be learned, they keep their offspring with them for many years. Tusks erupt at 16 months but do not show externally until 30 months. The calf suckles with its mouth (the trunk is held over its head); when its tusks are 5 or 6 inches long, they begin to disturb the mother and she weans it. Once weaned usually at age 4 or 5, the calf still remains in the maternal group.


Elephants consume about 5% of their body weight and drink 30-50 gallons of water per day. Young elephants must learn how to draw water up their trunks and pour it into their mouths. They eat an extremely varied vegetarian diet including grass, leaves, twigs, and bark, fruit and seed pods.

Predators and Threats

When AWF chose the elephant as its logo over 40 years ago, the elephant's survival was not a subject of great concern. Today, it is difficult for elephants to live outside protected parks as they are pressured by poachers and by the habitat loss that comes with increasing human settlement. For more than 40 years, AWF has been involved with elephant research in eastern and southern Africa, developing management strategies to minimize human-elephant conflict. Elephants are an essential component of African ecosystems, but when they are confined by park boundaries and human settlements, their impact can upset the ecological balance. Thus, the identification and protection of migration corridors and dispersal areas outside of parks is critical.

Did You Know?

- The elephant is distinguished by its high level of intelligence, interesting behavior, methods of communication and complex social structure.

- Elephants seem to be fascinated with the tusks and bones of dead elephants, fondling and examining them. The myth that they carry them to secret "elephant burial grounds," however, has no factual base.

- Elephants are very social, frequently touching and caressing one another and entwining their trunks.

- Elephants demonstrate concern for members of their families they take care of weak or injured members and appear to grieve over a dead companion.

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