African elephants are the largest land animals on the planet. Both their impressive size and complex herd behaviour makes them high on the list of animals people want to see when visiting Namibia. However, their existence is in danger – from around 10 million in 1930 to the alarming present day figure of 415 000 (2016). Etosha National Park is said to have about 2 500 elephants.
Elephants can be found in Northern Namibia, Mainly in Etosha National Park and the Zambezi region. However, desert-adapted elephants can also be found in Damaraland.
Etosha has the largest elephants in Africa, with bulls weighing 5500-6000kg (roughly the same weight as 4 cars). Females weigh around a third less than their male counterparts. Mammary glands, which are paler in colour than the surrounding belly skin, are the only discernible difference between the sexes. Tusks are specialised incisor teeth. They are smaller and more brittle than most African elephants owing to mineral deficiencies and genetic defects. Tusks appear around 3 years old and are used for removing bark, digging, clearing paths and as weapons. The combined nose and upper lip form their trunk, a boneless structure consisting of thousands of muscles, making it both very powerful and capable of performing very delicate tasks. It is also incredibly sensitive to smell and can detect water from several kilometres away. Their large ears contain numerous blood capillaries which disperse excess body heat and help to keep them cool.
The basic family group is called a herd and comprises of related females and their offspring. The matriarch of the group is usually the oldest or largest female. Males stay with the herd until puberty (10-15 years old) after which they leave the group and lead a more solitary existence. Elephants are known to be both very intelligent and emotional animals, forming strong bonds with each other and displaying signs of affection, joy, concern and sorrow. If threatened adults form a defensive circle, facing outwards, with the calves in the middle. The matriarch will then investigate the danger. Aggression is often shown by spreading their ears, shaking their heads, and trumpeting. If you are on a self-drive safari in Etosha and you see Elephants exhibiting this behaviour it is prudent to move some distance away.
African elephants eat a wide variety of vegetation, including grass, foliage, roots, bulbs, fruit, and bark. In Etosha they especially like feeding on mopane. They have also adapted to the water in this area which has a high salt content, sometimes exceeding that of seawater.
Mating occurs more frequently during the rainy season when males seek out females who are fertile (which only happens for a short period each year). Females will be more receptive to older males in musth. This is a periodic condition that involves higher levels of testosterone, heightened aggression, a thick secretion from the temporal glands and a constant dribble of urine. Of all animals, elephants have the longest gestation period: 22 months. Once born the calves suckle for about 5 years but will start eating solid food at 6 months. Initially they are unable to use their trunks, often taking up to a year before learning how to properly control this tricky appendage.