The African elephant is a gentle giant, not to mention the earth’s largest land mammal and perhaps the most enduring symbol of nature’s grace and fragility.

While elephants are a common sight when safariing in Africa, they are also facing unprecedented threats to their existence. The imperative to understand more about them and experience them in the wild has never been stronger. In this guide, we help you to do both.

Tourists in a safari jeep encountering elephants in the Masai Mara
Tourists in a safari jeep encountering elephants in the Masai Mara © pierivb / Getty Images

African elephants: the behemoths (and the hunted)

An adult African elephant is seriously large. A fully-grown male can weigh in at a massive 13,334lb (6048kg); even the smallest adult male rarely dips below 8820lb (4000kg), which is two-and-a-half times heavier than your average family car. Females are usually just over half the weight of the male. The size difference between the two is not quite as pronounced when it comes to height – the tallest males are 13ft (4m) tall, the tallest female rises to 11ft (3.4m). Apart from overall size, and unless the male is aroused, the most obvious difference between males and females is that females have an angular forehead, while a bull’s forehead is more rounded.

An elephant has the largest brain of any mammal; it can weigh up to 13lb (6kg). Its trunk, which serves an elephant like a hand, can be 6.6ft (2m) long and weigh over 287lb (130kg) – a trunk has no bones but may have 60,000 muscles in it. An elephant uses its tusks as both tools and weapons. The longest recorded tusks were 10ft (3m) long, while the heaviest reached 154lb (70kg).

Apart from humankind, elephants have few natural enemies. In some areas, such as Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe or, in the 1980s, in the Savuti region of northern Botswana, certain lion prides have learned to hunt infant and adolescent elephants.

If left alone, elephants can live to between 55 and 70 years old.

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Shot from above, this image shows six adult elephants standing on the edge of a shallow river in Botswana.
Herds of elephants are always led by a matriarch © guenterguni / 500px

The elephant sisterhood

Elephants live in a close, cross-generational sisterhood of females. An elephant mother has one of the longest pregnancy periods in the natural world: around 650 days. Most often, the mother gives birth to a single calf, and that calf will be able to walk, albeit unsteadily, within hours of being born. Baby elephants continue to breastfeed throughout the first two years of their lives, and many will not be truly independent until the age of ten. If the young elephant is a male, he will leave the herd of its birth somewhere between 10 and 14 years of age. Sometimes this dispersing male will remain alone or attach itself to an experienced larger bull elephant. Young female elephants remain with their natal herd, which may consist of their mother, grandmother, aunties, female cousins and other related females. This female bond will last throughout a female elephant’s lifetime. The herd is usually led by an older matriarch, an experienced female that takes the herd to water in times of drought and is the first to stand in defense of the herd’s members.

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An elephant standing up on its hind legs, with its trunk outstretched to pull down a tree branch for food.
Elephants will go to all ends to meet their dietary needs, which means eating 5% of their body weight daily © Jonathan Gregson / Lonely Planet

The world's most voracious vegetarians

Elephants are strict vegetarians and eat grass, leaves, fruits and even branches or twigs. In any 24-hour period, elephants will spend up to 19 hours eating and can eat up to 750lb (340kg), or around 5% of their not-inconsiderable body weight. If you extrapolate those figures further, elephants consume around 50 tons of food every year. At the other end, elephants defecate up to 30 times a day and deposit as much as 330lb (150kg) of dung in the process. Elephant dung serves a critical ecological purpose, spreading undigested seeds (a food source for insects, baboons and birds) which enable trees to spread their progeny; one study found that a single piece of elephant dung contained nearly 5700 acacia seeds.

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Elephants drink between 26 to 52 gallons of water per day. This compensates for the fact that as much as a gallon is lost every hour through the process of transepidermal water loss (through the skin), and that they urinate up to 13 gallons each day.

A safari guide (his back to the camera) looks through a pair of binoculars to a distant elephant on a grassy plain.
Seeing elephants on safari is always an unforgettable experience © Chris Whitehead / Getty Images

The best places to see elephants on safari

There are two species of African elephants: the forest elephant and the bush elephant. The much larger bush elephant is most commonly found in the savanna and light woodlands of East Africa and Southern Africa, with smaller populations in West Africa. The forest elephant is predominantly found in the forests of Central Africa, although their ranges do sometimes spill over into East and West Africa. 

The 2016 Great Elephant Census – the most comprehensive survey of elephants ever undertaken – counted 352,271 African bush or savanna elephants spread across 18 countries.

Elsewhere, the Asian elephant, which is considerably smaller than the African elephant, is now restricted to isolated populations throughout the Indian Subcontinent and South-East Asia.

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Botswana has more elephants than any other country, more than 130,000 in 2016. Anywhere in the Okavango Delta can be outstanding, but Chobe National Park is one of the best places in Africa to see elephants, with big elephants in big herds.


Kenya has some of the best elephant watching on the continent. The best is Amboseli National Park, but the Masai Mara, Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks, as well as the Samburu National Reserve are excellent as well.

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A huge herd of elephants stands amongst trees with the massive Mt Kilimanjaro rising in the background.
Kenya's Amboseli National Park, which offers unblemished views of Kilimanjaro, is a prime elephant-watching destination © Ian Lenehan / ianlenehan / 500px

South Africa

As always for wildlife, Kruger is prime elephant-watching country. Of the other options, Addo Elephant National Park is South Africa’s third-largest national park and offers some of the world’s best elephant viewing.


Etosha National Park is your best bet, but seeing the desert-adapted elephants of Damaraland, also in the country’s north, is another highlight.


Tanzania’s elephant population may be declining but sightings remain generally excellent in the Serengeti, Lake Manyara, Tarangire and Ruaha national parks.

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A safari guide in a canoe on the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park looks to the bank where a large elephant is standing.
Safaris on the banks of the Zambezi (Zimbabwe and Zambia) include canoes for elephant watching © Jonathan Gregson / Lonely Planet


South Luangwa National Park is Zambia’s best park for seeing elephants.


In 2016, Zimbabwe had more than 80,000 elephants, second only to Botswana. Try Hwange and Mana Pools national parks; the former is home to half of Zimbabwe’s elephants.


Malawi’s Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is a lovely park, especially since the recent and historic translocation of 500 elephants there.


In Mozambique, Gorongosa National Park is brilliant for elephants.

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A baby elephant (a few weeks old) stands in long, green grass behind its mother; only the mother's behind is visible, with her tail caressing the baby.
Despite producing plenty of offspring, African elephants are in danger due to the increased level of poaching across the continent © Licinia Machado / 500px

Elephants in peril

Thanks to their tusks and the enduring popularity of ivory (particularly in Asia), elephants have been poached in unsustainable numbers since the 1970s and their numbers have fallen dramatically as a result. The African elephant is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In the 1970s and 1980s, poaching caused the numbers of African elephants to crash from around 1.3 million to closer to 500,000. In Kenya, for example, elephant numbers fell from 45,000 in 1976 to just 5400 in 1988. The slaughter ended only in 1989 when the trade in ivory was banned under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). When the ban was established, world raw ivory prices plummeted by 90%, and the market for poaching and smuggling was radically reduced. The same year, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi dramatically burned 12 tons of ivory in Nairobi National Park as a symbol of Kenya’s resolve in the battle against poachers.

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Elephants roam the Masai Mara National Reserve
Elephants roam the Masai Mara National Reserve © Atish Sen / 500px

But poaching is again on the rise. Africa has lost more than 30,000 elephants a year since 2010. That’s around 7% of Africa’s elephant population every year. That’s 673 elephants being killed a week, 96 a day. That’s four elephants being killed for their tusks every hour. In 2014, for the first time in decades, a critical threshold was crossed when more elephants were being killed on the continent than were being born.

The 2016 Great Elephant Census recorded a 30% decrease in Africa’s elephant populations in just seven years, although there was good news alongside the bad. Kenya's elephant population, for example, was considered to be "relatively stable" at 25,959, while Uganda's 4864 elephants were cause for optimism after the country's elephant population fell to just 800 during the 1980s. Tanzania, on the other hand, saw a catastrophic 60% decline in elephant numbers in the five years to 2016, with just 42,871 elephants and 2.6 carcasses spotted for every live elephant.

Conservationists anxiously await the next census to learn whether the massive conservation effort to save the elephant has stemmed the tide of elephant killings.

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This article was first published November 2019 and updated July 2022

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