© FZS/Koch&Wolf/
by Greg Sharam and Dick Estes

Imagine cresting a hill in the Serengeti Woodlands and seeing before you an entire valley filled with elephants. There are so many that at first you think they are Kopjes, only that they move, they turn, test the air, and carry on feeding, squealing, rumbling, and doing all of the myriad of things that has made the African Elephant such a celebrity of the animal world.
The African Elephant is the largest land animal, and at 3000-5000 kg, they weigh as much as four cars. Even to those used to seeing them, the shear size and bulk of elephants, especially at close range, is amazing. Both males and female elephants can push down full-grown trees in the search for food. They can also pick up the smallest seeds or nuts with their digit-like trunk.
Elephants formerly ranged over most of sub-Saharan Africa. Due to increased land use by humans and illegal poaching pressure, though, they are restricted to remote areas and national parks and reserves. Today, elephants still range over a wide area of Africa, and a wide diversity of habitats, from swamps and forests, plains and savannas to the open Namibian desert.

Social Organization
Most elephants live in herds of 2 to 24, which are led by the oldest female or "matriarch", who can be as much as 60 years old. A herd is made up of one or several family groups. Each group consists of the matriarch's reproductive aged daughters and their offspring. Males live with the herds until they reach puberty and then leave to join bachelor herds, or roam on their own. During mating season at the end of the seasonal rains, elephants mass together into groups of 100-200.
Elephant society within a herd is age structured, with the matriarch at the top and animals descending in order of age from her. Older elephants teach younger ones how to behave and presumably about the landscape and foodstuffs. The matriarch lives far beyond her breeding age, and it is thought that this added life span is important for teaching the younger generations. This trait is rare in animals with elephants and humans being two of only a few examples. It is common to see adult elephants chastising younger elephants with trunk slaps or vocalizations.
Matriarchs decide when to move and eat for the other elephants. She is normally the first to move or stop to feed and the herd rarely strays more than 50m from her and each other. When threatened, the herd gathers around the matriarch and moves quickly for cover.
Males, or bulls, live on their own, in two's or in bachelor herds. Males are driven from the herd in which they were born by the dominant females when they reach adolescence. Pubescent males of age 12-13 become sexually active and unruly. This behavior is not tolerated, in particular, by the mothers of small calves. Males spend the rest of their lives alternately associating with other males, and wandering alone. Males periodically undergo a period of "musth", where they develop higher levels of testosterone, become aggressive and travel widely in search of mating opportunities.

A Typical Elephant Day
A typical elephant day is dominated by the 16 hours of feeding that it needs to support its great bulk. This feeding is done in several periods during the early morning, late afternoon, and during the night. Elephants will sleep 4-5 hours per day, sometimes leaning against a tree, standing or lying down. Other activities include the search for new food, moving to drinking holes, and sparring. If they have the opportunity, elephants will drink every day, though they can go several days without water. They will use available rivers or water holes, or can search out and dig for underground water supplies such as in swamps or dry river beds. After drinking, elephants will often wallow or spray themselves with water followed by dirt or dust. A good coat of mud is a prevention against biting insects and burrowing parasites.

Elephant Communication
Elephants have a wide and varied language of visual signs and vocalizations. These can vary from a mother steering her calf by its tail, to the terrifying ears-out, trunk-rolled charge.
There are two general kinds of visual communication in elephants; aggressive and defensive/submissive. Aggressive behavior is marked by the elephant generally turning toward the threat, pulling itself up to its full height, spreading its ears to make itself seem larger and often jerking its head up and down. If the animal is very threatened it might "bluff" charge where it charges up to and then past the threat. Elephants will charge and connect with their threat if they feel very threatened, startled, or if they have some prior experience of the threat; such as a wounded animal. If the animal does connect, it usually tries to throw its smaller opponent using its tusks, and may trample or kneel on the victim.
Defensive/submissive displays include leaving the area, flattening the ears, arching its back, raising the tail, and moving its trunk about in an agitated way. Young or junior elephants will put the end of their trunks into the mouth of the mother or larger animal.
The two most common types of vocalizations that elephants make are rumble/growls, and trumpeting. Rumbles were long thought to come from the stomach, but in fact are produced the same way we shout or yell. Elephants rumble to communicate over long distances or as a call to give their position. Very deep rumbles, inaudible to the human ear may be able to travel over several kilometers. When an elephant is angry, grumpy or surprised, it will rumble louder, which sounds like a growl. Trumpeting is a sound produced by the elephant blowing through its trunk and having it resonate like a musical instrument. Elephants trumpet when they are excited or when they are extremely angry.
If you spend a lot of time with elephants, you may hear two additional sounds; squealing and screaming. Babies when they feel threatened or scared will squeal. Do not get between a mother elephant and its squealing calf if you want to remain safe. Screaming is the grown-up version of squealing and is done by adults during dominance displays or when they are extremely angry.

Serengeti Elephants
During the 1930's, the newly arrived park wardens and administrators began seeing a few lone elephants entering the Serengeti. Through the 1940's, 1950's and into the 1960's, it was believed that elephants were not a natural part of the Serengeti Ecosystem and that they were colonizing this area for the first time. Only when older hunter records and diaries of explorers were consulted did researchers see that elephants had been in Serengeti before 1900. During the 1880's and 1890's the ivory trade in East Africa drove elephant numbers down. Elephants were killed in huge numbers and the remainder fled to remote and inaccessible areas. Only when the ivory trade dropped at the beginning of the 1900's did elephants begin to recover and re-colonize some of their former habitat.
Elephants flourished during the 1960's and 1970's in Serengeti, breeding quickly and reaching a population of 2,460. From the mid 1970's until the late 1980's was a dark time for the Serengeti elephants. The price of ivory increased and illegal poaching began to take an increasing toll on the elephant population. By 1990, only about 500 elephants remained in the park, 400-500 had fled to Kenya, and the remaining 1500 had been killed by poachers.
During the mid 1990's, elephants began returning to the park from Kenya and breeding intensively within the Serengeti. Today, the population stands at 2,100 and most elephants have several young and at least one small calf. If the current ban on ivory remains, the elephants of Serengeti should have a strong, safe future.

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