What makes African Elephants Special? All About the life cycle, behaviors, conservation, and where to see African Elephants.  

Did you know?

African Elephant Fun Facts

1. Sleeping with elephants: Elephants lie down to sleep. You can sometimes “track” them by finding their “mattresses” of squashed bushes or termite mounds – or by listening. Elephants snore!   
2. Staying cool: Elephants have no sweat glands; instead their gigantic ears, and occasionally the male’s extended penis, act as personal cooling systems.

3. Beauty and the beast: A group of tiny butterflies suddenly swarming can spook the giant elephant.
4. Keep it cool: Elephants do not like chili. Some farmers have had success in protecting their crops by burning “chili bombs” (dung mixed with chili peppers) at night when the elephants usually raid. 

Sometimes Called

For savanna elephants: bush elephants  
For forest elephants: dwarf African elephants

Relatively Speaking


Genus and Species

There are two species of African elephants:

1. Savanna elephant: Loxodonta Africana
2. Forest elephant: Loxodonta cyclotis  

Subspecies of Savanna Elephant

The savanna elephant has no fully recognized subspecies, however:

1. West African elephant: As per the IUCN these may be a savanna elephant subspecies.

2. Desert elephants: Although not a true sub-species of the savanna elephant, they have evolved physical (smaller bodies, longer legs, larger feet) and behavioral modifications (night migrations and feeding preferences) to habituate to their desert home. See below: The Road Less Traveled, for more. 

Subspecies of Forest Elephant 

The forest elephant has no known subspecies.

African Elephant's Closest Living Relative


The rock hyrax, or dassie (4 - 9 lbs. / 2.3 – 4.0 kg), is the gigantic elephant’s closest living (non-elephant) relative. Dassies even have tiny tusks. Another close relative recently discovered is the dugong, a large, shy marine mammal that probably gave rise to the mermaid myth.  

Other Related Species


Asian elephant: Elephas maximus. The Asian elephant (IUCN Red List: Endangered), native to: Sri Lanka, Myammar, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Nepal, Bangladesh, and southern China is not found in Africa. Asian elephants have three subspecies of their own: the Indian (E.m indicus), and the Sumatran (E.m sumatanus), and the Sri Lankan (E.m.maximus) elephant.

Borneo or Pygmy elephants (elephas maximus borneensis) are traditionally included with Indian elephants but may be a separate subspecies.

What’s the Difference: African versus Asian Elephants? 

At first glance both species look like – well, elephants, but on closer inspection there are a myriad of physical differences between the African and Asian species, here are a few:

The smallest of all. There are only 1500 Pygmy elephants left in the world - most in Borneo, Malaysia along the Kinabatangan River where they can find the salt they need. Thanks to Incidental Naturalist, ©David Rigden for the Image. Read about his experience with pygmy elephants here.

 African elephants are physically bigger and heavier than their Asian cousins. Inside they have an extra set of ribs, 22 sets for the African verses 21 for the Asian elephant, probably to help support that extra bulk. Their heads are different too. The Asian elephant’s forehead has a distinctive “dent”, and smaller rounded ears, while the African elephant’s head is more rounded at top with ears that are proportionately larger and wider.  Only Asian male elephants develop tusks while both male and female African elephants grow them. And Asia elephants are not naturally found in Africa. See above: "Other Related Species" for more information.

Asian Elephant Fun Fact: Asian elephants, great apes, and dolphins are the only mammals known to recognize themselves in a mirror.     

By The Numbers

IUCN Red List: Vulnerable

This is the assessment for both African elephant species combined. While both species’ numbers are rapidly diminishing, the forest elephant is in the more precarious state.  They have not been separately assessed by the IUCN. 

How Many African Elephants are Left in the Wild? 

As recently as early 2016 the total wild African elephant population today (2016) was accessed at approximately 470,000. However, new information released in September 2016 puts the figure at only 352,271. The vast majority are savanna elephants. Forest elephants are very difficult to count and may only contribute 20% to the total African elephant population. 

Elephant Conservation Notes

Elephants are being slaughtered at a rate of 96 individuals per day. Image: Marc Cronje, Wildlife Field Guide. Kruger National Park, South Africa

According to the IUCN in 1979 there were over 2.1 million elephants in Africa. In 2015, the number was estimated to be 470,000, indicating a loss of over 77%. In early 2016 leading experts agreed that elephants are dying at a rate of 96 individuals every day. Then the news got worse.

Time is running out. As of September 2016, the results of the first ever elephant census, completed by 90 scientists and 286 crew members in 18 countries reveals that the numbers are far worse than we thought. The total population of only 352,271 individuals means we are losing over 8% of elephants per year.  In some places the population is devastated: 75% of the elephants gone in the last 10 years from Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve and Mozambique's Niassa Reserve.  Only 36 individual's remain in Ethiopia's ironically named Babile Elephant Reserve.  We have lost over 1/3 of our total African elephant population in the last ten years. The vast majority are killed by poachers in search of ivory which is then quickly exported.

Organized Crime: Trafficking in animal parts especially, ivory, horn, bones and skin, has become a dangerous, well organized crime. But why? A simple economic truth is that - legal or illegal - if there is market demand for a product a means to supply it will be found. In this case, ivory demand is fueled mostly by the emerging economies in China and other parts of Asia, however, the US is also a major importer of illegal ivory products - perhaps one of the largest in the world.

In conjunction with foreign demand, pervasive local poverty, social unrest, and regional wars enables the "business" of poaching.

Funding Terrorism: A recent year-long investigation titled Warlords of Ivory by National Geographic's Brain Christy proved that a more dangerous force was propelling the slaughter of endangered species. The investigation tracked a single elephant tusk from its handover point in the Central African Republic to the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a well know terrorist group, and then into Sudan. There is also evidence suggesting that trade in ivory is one of the means being used to forge links between the LRA, Al Shabaab, and ISIS.  Poaching is no longer a business of individuals with rifles or snares. Wildlife poaching is now done by well organized and funded armies tracking prey with helicopters, slaughtering elephants from above with automatic weapons, and removing the tusks with chain saws. 

Hours old. harsh environmental conditions bring this desert elephant babie's chance of survival down to 50% of its savanna cousin's. Couple that with shrinking habitat and poaching and the babie's odds of growing old are not promising. Image: Thanks to Will Steenkamp, and Desert Elephant Conservation.

Park Ranger Deaths: The animals are not the only things dying. The job of protecting elephants and other wildlife ranges from difficult to almost impossible, and it is often deadly. Rangers in "protected" parks and reserves are frequently killed in the line of duty. While the documentary by Christy was being filmed, two rangers in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the scene of slaughter for hundreds of elephants, were killed. As always, it is about economics. The rangers stand between the source of ivory and those who profit from selling it.  Their deaths are a means to an end.

Hunting and Habitat Loss: Additionally, human encroachment plays a part in the elephant's precarious survival prospects. Shrinking habitat and all the expected resulting conflicts between farmers, villagers, and elephants increasingly add to the overall problem. And legal trophy hunting continues to be an issue. All of this makes saving these iconic, intelligent, and wonderful (not to mention ecologically important) animals more difficult every day. For more on conservation and information on the specific issues of Namibia's few remaining desert elephants please see, "What are Desert Elephants?"  below. 

Encouraging News

Very difficult to protect and count, forest elephant gather at Central Africa Republic's Dzanga Bai, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here on May 06, 2013 26 elephants were slaughtered by poachers. Image: ©Surz01 ⎮

Elephants are much beloved and inspire passion and curiosity worldwide. 56 million tourists visited Africa in 2014, with elephants being a major draw. The traveling public is beginning to understand that these intelligent creatures may be viewed but are best left uninterrupted, in other words: watched, not ridden, fed, or "played with." 

The benefits of responsible tourism for wildlife are both local and global. Tourists tend to return to their home countries with a greater understanding and support for wildlife conservation issues. While locally, those communities who benefit from wildlife tourism, are more inclined to value and protect the habitat and animals that make it possible, and less inclined to either join or ignore the business of poaching.

There has been a huge effort by conservation groups in the last few years, to increase public awareness of the elephant's dire situation. This has inspired widespread outcry against the killing of elephants for profit. Public destruction of confiscated ivory, and new and enforced laws regarding ivory sales, are all contributing to the anti-poaching effort as are the latest advances in security including dog trackers (Kruger National Park, South Africa) and elephant radio collars (Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo).

he slaughter, however, will not be stopped until the market for ivory (and other animal parts) ceases. A great push to educate people in China, Thailand and elsewhere is beginning to make headway, but even more public education is essential. The U.S is still the greatest importer of ivory souvenirs and "art", while China and Vietnam demand ivory and other animal parts additionally for use in folk medicine. When the demand stops - the killing will stop. 

Identify African Elephant

Elephants grow 6 sets of teeth during their life. Researchers can gage elephant age by the texture of their dung - which is determined by the condition of their teeth. African savannah elephant in Etosha National Park, Namibia. Image: ©R.Kravette for Destination: WIldlife


Adult Height: 8 – 14 feet at the shoulder  (2.5 – 4.0 m)
Adult Weight: 4,000 to 14,000 pounds (2,270 – 6,350 kg)
Males can be considerably larger than the females. 

Distinguishing Characteristics

African elephants are enormous with hairless, rough, grey-brown skin and a long trunk culminating in two surprisingly sensitive and dexterous “fingers” at the tips (Asian elephants only have one). Both sexes usually have tusks, that are actually teeth. They are used to loosen mud and plants or for self-defense. Elephants continue to grow through out their lives. Males can become considerably larger than females. 

What is the Difference Between Forest Elephants & Savanna Elephants? 

Forest elephants like these in the Central African Republic, are smaller then savannah elephants and have shorter, straighter, and thinner tusks. Unfortunately, the tusks are also more dense and favored by sculptors - making them very valuable to poachers. Image: © Suarz01⎮

Adult savannah elephants (8,000 – 14,000 lbs. / 3,630 - 6,350 kg) are significantly larger and can weigh almost twice as much as their mature forest cousins (4,000 -10,000 lbs. / 1,810 - 4,540 kg), which is why the forest elephant is sometimes called the “dwarf African elephant.” 

A fast way to recognize the species is by examining the tusks and ears. Savanna elephant tusks curve up while forest elephants have straighter tusks that point down and their ears have more of an oval shape.

Their more elusive nature and forest habitat make the forest elephant far more difficult to track and count (or protect). By some estimates their numbers may be as low as 20% of the savanna elephant population. This probably contributes to the fact that they are also less genetically diverse.

What Are Desert Elephants?

Desert elephants are the last remnants of the herds that were massacred during the Namibian war of independence and the Angolan war in the 1990's.

This desert elephant baby will drink far less, grow taller, and migrate further (usually at night) than its savanna cousins. It will learn to negotiate loose sand, and sharp, rocky inclines and develop a taste for myrrh - if it survives at all. Image: Dr. Laura Brown for Desert Elephant Conservation.

Although these desert dwellers are not officially listed as a sub-species, they are physically different from their savanna cousins. Desert elephants are taller with wide splayed feet that help them negotiate the loose, sandy environment of their arid habitat. They can go for longer periods without drinking, and have developed some interesting eating habits, including a preference for that biblical gift: myrrh. But it is the elephants fabled memory and social structure that has kept them alive but may yet be their undoing. 

Desert elephants are constantly on the move. The old matriarchs and bulls remember traditional water holes, food sources, and shade spots. These elders are an invaluable resource in an environment where peak summer temperatures can reach 104 F (40 C) and yearly rainfall can be as little as 1.2 inches (30mm).

They continuously lead their families hundreds of miles, often traveling the desert by night. The water hole at Palmwag Lodge is a favorite rest stop. See: "The Road Less Traveled" below for more information. 

Today, desert elephants are under tremendous pressure from habitat loss and the associated problem of human/elephant conflict (which often results in the killing of elephants) in farming areas that were once their habitat and migration routes. They are being squeezed into smaller and smaller areas of available habitat.

Rare desert waterhole. Loss of a matriarch is loss of memory & experience and that can mean death for the younger generations. Image: Dr. Laura Brown, desert Elephant Conservation.

When older females (matriarchs) are killed, it affects the entire herd, often leading to a loss of offspring, the disruption of social dynamics within family groups, and the loss of valuable "herd memory" (i.e. where to find food and water resources that are vastly dispersed in the desert.)

Similarly, the loss of older males means that there will not always be a male or reproductive age available when a female comes into estrus, thus the population declines. See below: "What are They Doing" for more on the repercussions of herd member loss.  

According to an on-going independent study of desert elephants by scientists at the the Desert Elephant Conservation, there are approximately 150 desert-dwelling elephants remaining in the Kunene and Damara regions of northwestern Namibia (one of only two desert elephant populations in the world - the other is in Mali), with about 50 in the Palmwag Concession area. It is unfortunate to note that Namibia, as of this writing (9/2016), refused to allow scientists to include its elephants in the 2016 census. This does not bode well for the Namibia's remaining individuals. Hopefully, responsible wildlife tourism to areas other than its well-known Etosha National Park will encourage Namibia to honor its constitution and protect its elephants.  See Below: "The Road Less Traveled" for more.  

Understanding African Elephants

Young male elephants stay with the female herds until they reach about 15 years at which time they are thrown out. They join a single or herd of older males who then mentor them in manners and discipline. Image: L. Medley. Etosha National Park, Namibia

The Life Cycle of Elephants

In the wild, African elephants can live up to 70 years. Males reach adulthood at about 20; females are mature by 10 or 11 years and may start bearing young in their early teens, although the years between 25 and 45 are their best reproductively. Females can give birth every four to five years after a 20 to 24-month gestation period. The exception are the desert elephants. Although it is possible for them to breed every four years, harsh conditions contribute to a higher than average infant mortality rate. Female desert elephants may produce a calf as often as their savanna dwelling cousins, but only about one calf every eight years will survive.  See above "What Are Desert Elephants"  for more information on Namibia's desert elephants. 

Dung, an encyclopedia of elephant information including its age and dental condition is useful for humans, too! I can be used for fuel or fertilizer, or made into paper - and it can save your life. Lost in the desert? Squeeze fresh elephant dung. You can recover enough moisture to survive. Image: R. Kravette Destination: Palmwag Concession, Namibia.

Young: Calves nurse for a bare minimum of two years, but most are still only partially weaned by five. Some may nurse as long as nine years. They usually stop when their mother delivers another calf. Until youngsters reach 6 years old they are completely under their mother’s protection. See below" "What Are They Doing?" for more information on baby elephants. 

Teeth and Age: During its lifetime an elephant will grow six sets of teeth; each larger than the last.  The last set will grow in about age 30.  When the last set is ground down the elephant can no longer process its food properly and will eventually die from lack of nutrition. Researchers can actually "age" an elephant from the condition and content of their droppings which is directly correlated to the condition of their teeth.  

What is On the Elephant Menu?

All elephants are herbivores. Savanna elephants consume up to 660 pounds (300 kg) of grasses, bark, leaves, plants and wild fruits, per day.  Unfortunately, this sometimes includes farmed crops.

Forest elephants depend on leaves and bark, and especially love wild fruit. Forest elephants need frequent visits to salt-licks to quench their salt and mineral craving. 

Palmwag Concession, Namibia. Euphorbia demarana is toxic enough to kill humans even when it is burned, but it is locally called "elephant's mattress" because elephants like to sleep on it. Image: ©R. Kravette

What Are They Doing

They say a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence. Elephants have the largest brain of any mammal and are intelligent, social animals clearly displaying their sense of humor at watering holes where all generations play, tease, and spray each other. These waterholes are the perfect place to watch elephants at their relaxed best. 

Elephants are wanderers, sometimes covering hundreds of miles in a seasonal search for sustenance. A matriarch, usually the oldest female, holds the memory of water and food locations, safe paths, and more. She leads her family unit of related adult females, sub-adults and calves. All the unit's females, even the young ones, help with the kids, gathering experience and learning valuable “child rearing” techniques from their elders. Elephants seem to enjoy physical contact. They greet each other and those from other familiar families with vocalizations and by entwining their trunks and rubbing and touching each other. They also show clear mourning behavior.   

They say a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence, elephants have the largest brain of any land mammal, they love to tease and play, especially in water. Image: Thanks to ©Marc Cronje, Field Guide, Kruger National Park, South Africa.

What happens to the calves when an elephant matriarch dies?  Family units are highly affected when they lose a member. When its matriarch dies the family may become less cohesive, may have trouble protecting the young and difficulty finding traditional water and feeding areas.

A six-year old calf that loses his mother may survive if adopted by another female or herd, however unless they are quickly rescued, un-weaned calves, usually those less than two years old, will not survive.

This is because nursing mothers nurse their own calf first; the "extra" baby might find sympathy, but not nourishment. It will begin to starve, get weak, and eventually it will begin to hold up the herd. For the safety of her family, the matriarch will give the signal to leave the orphan behind.

Just one hour old. This desert elephant baby is welcomed by its auntie and another slightly older calf (behind) Its survival depends on the herd's protection and affection. Image: Dr. Laura Brown, Desert Elephant Conservation.

Even if a calf is then rescued in time, its survival is not ensured. Calves, are always traumatized by the loss of their mother; but loss of their affectionate and protecting herd too can be so emotionally devastating that it places the rescued calf's survival at real risk. Although certain rescue facilities have had good luck, these rescued calves sometimes lose the will to live. 

Adult male elephants live alone or in bachelor groups, joining female herds usually only when it is time to breed. Young males are kicked out of their matriarchal herd at about 15-years old.

The boys usually pair with adult male mentors until they reach maturity at about 20 years. Mentoring is important to the young males. Those who have not had enough male mentoring can become aggressive and unpredictable "rogue" individuals. This is a real and much documented problem as poaching kills off the older, stronger, - and wiser - males. 

Elephant Communication

Elephants communicate with both body language and through broad range of sound that can travel many miles both audible, including trumpeting and rumbles etc., and inaudible (to humans) infrasound.  The sound vibrations are picked up by their ears and also through their trunks and feet. Recent research, most notably by ethnologist/conservationist and elephant expert Joyce Poole Ph.D. and her team, has shown that different elephant families will respond in the same ways to specific recorded rumbles, whether recorded from that herd or not, indicating that elephants have specialized recognizable vocalizations for different occasions. 

The video below shows a lovely communication between a mama elephant and her baby - no translation required. Thank you to Marc Cronje for allowing us to share his video. 

The big bull standing directly in front of Marc's safari vehicle is in musth. Note: aggressive stance, wet back leg, and dribble down his face behind its eye. It is safe to say he is not in the best mood. Be cautious of musth bulls. Image:© Marc Cronje, Independent Field Guide, Kruger National Park, SA.

What is Musth? 

When an African elephant male reaches breeding age, beginning at about 25 years, a cyclical condition, triggered by a sudden rise - up to 200% - in testosterone levels, occurs. The musth state is characterized by heightened aggressive behavior and no sense of humor.

This is when “contests” for mating privileges occur. Look for back legs darkened on the inside by a continuous urine dribble and thick secretions from the temporal glands located between eye and ear. You may hear their low frequency vocalizations or rumbles. Legendary “rogue” bulls were probably in musth. Note: At this time their unpredictability and aggressive tendencies cannot be stressed enough – stay far away from musth bulls.  

Range and Habitat

Savannah elephants live in grasslands that have trees and plenty of water.  Although they used to roam all but the most northern regions of the continent, today they’re mostly limited to protected areas in Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, and Namibia. Water holes are a perfect place to view savanna elephant families. 

Forest elephants live in the thick forests of Cameroon, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Ghana.  These places are difficult to protect and the wildlife is actively hunted. The remaining forest elephants are rare and elusive.

Enemies and Threats

Humans pose their most deadly threat. Lions, wild dogs, hyenas and crocodiles will prey on calves; adults have no real natural predators. See above: Conservation Notes" and also "What Are Desert Elephants" for more

A Personal Note

Last year while on photographic safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, the lead Range Rover in our caravan of two radioed in about the sighting of large green elephants ahead. Green elephants?  

Green elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia. We thought we had discovered a whole new (and possibly extra-terrestrial) species! Image: ©R. Kravette for Destination:WIldlife

It was quite early in the morning. I was in the second rover. We had stopped to look at a pair of kori bustards (really interesting large, mostly ground dwelling birds) hunting for lizards along the side of the road and lost sight of the lead vehicle.

All six of us had had breakfast less than an hour before. I would have sworn it had not included alcohol - but .. All of a sudden the voice of the lead rover's driver (I will not mention Les' name) came in over the radio with the strangest news: "Green elephants up ahead! - REPEAT: GREEN ELEPHANTS UP AHEAD!"

We looked at each other. How do you answer that? We sent no reply but decided among ourselves that our friends (and my husband) might have gotten "thirsty" a bit early in the day. We started out expecting to be teased for our tardiness when we caught up. Then we rounded the corner.  

Standing in an open field with the sun streaming down on their lime-colored bodies were two enormous elephants: a mountainous older male and his younger almost-as-huge mentee. The lead vehicle had stopped and turned off its engine. We pulled up a short distance behind. As we watched, the bigger of the two green giants walked slowly but directly toward the rover. Les was in the driver's seat, eyes glued to the green giants, his hands gripping the steering wheel. Brian, the owner of Hemingway Safaris sat behind him, his body still in a "relaxed" position but his eyes fixed on the approaching older male.  Our friend, Gary, was in the front passenger side - the radio remained on "transmit." We could hear Brian's low, calm, South African accented voice instructing Les. "He's fine," Brian said. Don't move. Don't make any noise." In our vehicle, Marc Cronje, our field guide for the expedition, was telling us the same thing. "Just watch." 

This big guy came right over to the rover to investigate - trunk and ears down. Brian Gaisford (Hemingway Safaris, New York & South Africa) advised us to stay quiet and calm. Photo: ©R.Kravette for Destination:Wildlife

The green giant stopped about 10 feet away, directly perpendicular to the side of the rover. If he wanted to, he could easily have made short work of turning the vehicle. And out-running him would have been highly improbable if not altogether impossible. The elephant took another step forward - then, deliberately turned slightly - and walked at an angle directly behind the rover.

Les told me later that when he passed, his side covered the entire the entire window like a great green/grey wall.  He walked over to the grass on the other side. The younger one followed. In the vehicles, we began to breath again. 

Unfortunately, high hopes of fame and fortune from the discovery of new breed of recently arrived space alien pachyderms was not to be. On closer inspection (but from a greater distance) we recognized them as just a couple of local boys gloriously covered, trunk-to-tail, in slime from a near-by mud hole. 

Destination: African Elephants

Savanna Elephants

They can still easily be seen in many of the protected areas within their range, including Etosha National Park in northern Namibia and Kruger National Park in South Africa as shown in the images above. The following additional places are suggested for their signature features: 

Botswana: Chobe National Park

Chobe National Park, especially along the Okavango Delta is home to a myriad of species including elephants and this hippo. Be aware - hippos kill more humans than lions - never come between them and water. Image: ©artushfoto⎮

Chobe National Park encompasses four distinct eco-systems: the Chobe riverfront, the Ngwezumba pans, the Suvute, and Linyanti. Here you can find a huge variety of wildlife and birds including Africa’s largest surviving population of elephants (120,000 individuals) They are migratory, moving 125 miles (200 km), from river to pans within the park seasonally. Very rare, endangered painted dogs can be seen in the Linyanti River section of the park near the boarder with Namibia.  The best time to visit is in their dry season: April through October.

Wildlife Bonus: Hippopotamus, lion, leopard, zebra, blue wildebeest, giraffe, tseessebe, Cape buffalo, African painted dog, crocodiles and over 400 bird species including fish eagle and wading birds.  

Kenya: Amboseli National Park

Elephant family with calves at Amboseli National Park, Kenya Image: ©Stephanie Van Der Vinden⎮ Dreamstime. com

 A UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve (1991), home to the longest running elephant study in the world and possibly the only place to see full age ranges from newborn to 60-year old matriarchs. 

Wildlife Bonus: Cape buffalo, lion, spotted hyena, giraffe, wildebeest, impala, and numerous birds. 

South Africa: Addo Elephant National Park

Male lions, most of the time brothers, will often partner up to protect a territory and control a larger pride. Addo Elephant Park, South Africa Image: ©Grobler du Preez ⎮

Proclaimed a park in 1931 specifically to protect the areas last 11 elephants, today it is home to over 600. The park includes forest, fynbos (an incredibly diverse range of low growing, hard leaved plants found only in a small belt in South Africa, amazingly beautiful when in bloom), and a marine reserve. 

Wildlife Bonus: Here you can see rhino, Cape buffalo, AND whales, great white shark, and African penguin. 

Forest Elephants

Far more difficult to find – but perhaps that much more rewarding when you do. 

Mandrill monkey, the largest and most colorful of all the monkey species can be found in Gabon. Image: ©Ivonov⎮

Gabon: Ivindo National Park

One of the first protected areas in Africa. Forest elephants are studied at Langoué Bai research camp, established and monitored by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).Bai is the Pygmy word for clearing. In this case the clearing includes mineral rich soil and waters that draw elephants, gorillas, and other wildlife.

Ivindo National Park is also home to the shy, elusive, Mandrill monkey; the largest and certainly the most colorful of all monkey species. They were once thought to be a baboon subspecies. 

Wildlife Bonus: Western lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, mandrill monkey, and other primates, hippopotamus, red river hog, forest buffalo, sitatunga (marshbuck), and many birds, butterflies, and dragonflies. 

Democratic Republic of Congo: Virunga National Park.

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to forest elephants where they are being collared to preserve them, and also the endangered mountain gorilla, Image: ©MAgicBones

 The park has the only alpine-mountain habitat in Africa, spans the volcanic Virunga Mountains and is home to some of the most threatened wildlife in the world. They have begun to collar forest elephants for their protection.  UNESCO calls Virunga, “… the top African National Park for Biodiversity.” This is also one of only three places to see endangered mountain gorillas. After many years of civil war and unrest, and now under the guidance of Emmanuel  de Merode and with help from the international community, Virunga is ready and able to show tourists the very best of what responsible tourism can do for the conservation of habitat, wildlife and the well being of the surrounding communities. 

Wildlife Bonus: One of only three places in the world to see Mountain Gorillas (none live in captivity). Chimpanzee and other primates, hippopotamus, forest buffalo, okapi, red forest duiker, as well as hundreds of species of birds and butterflies. 

The Road Less Traveled

We were too late to see the elusive few remaining desert elephants - they had visited Palmwag's spring and left a few days before, but we did see these endangered mountain zebra, giraffe, and some magnificent kudu. Image: ©R.Kravette for Destination: WIldlife

Namibia: Damaraland, Palmwag Lodge

The Palmwag concession in Namibia's Damaraland is a huge semi-desert reserve a 4 to 5-hour drive west of the more wildlife-dense Etosha National Park; however, this is where the very rare desert elephant (but few other tourists) can be seen. These amazing, constantly migrating giants make the spring at the Palmwag Lodge a regular rest stop. See above: "What Are Desert Elephants" for more information. 

Although there is no guaranty that the elephants will be there when you are, our arrival was a few days after their departure, it is well worth the try. The lodge is lovely, the desert landscape fascinating, and guided bush walks and game drives will have you spotting lots of wildlife and if not the elephants themselves, then plenty of their spore including the squashed “mattresses” and huge foot prints like the ones we saw from the elephant’s visit the week before.  The desert, and animal behavior, changes when the sun begins to wane. We took a late afternoon game drive with one of the knowledgable field guides, (never miss one if offered the opportunity). It ended on a hill top where we watched the sun set and sipped wine in the soft, cool air.  

While we cannot always count on the wildlife to be where we would like them to be - when we want them to be there - we can always depend on a magnificent African sunset like this one near the Palmwag Lodge. Image: L.Medley for Destination: WIldlife

While we were at the lodge a family with young children was taking a couple of days break from their safari adventure. The kids were having a great time in the lovely shaded pool (one of two).  Palmwag lodge is kid friendly but open to Namibia's vast wilderness and its wildlife so, as always with young children, be aware. 

Wildlife Bonus: Endangered Hartmann’s mountain zebra, plains zebra, kudu, black rhino, spotted hyena, and the 1000-year old Welwitschia plant.  There are desert lions here, too, equally elusive and equally amazing. 

Responsible Elephant Viewing

Water holes are the best places to watch wildlife. They offer opportunities to see many species at one time, like this savannah elephant and black rhino at Etosha National Park, Namibia. Image: ©LisaLynn82⎮

Preparing for Your African Elephant Adventure

African Elephants are full of personality. Choose a viewing destination with water holes that are accessible to safari vehicles. Then plan to stay put awhile. Elephants love their water time, the longer you are still and quiet the more relaxed they will become. Watching them interact and play is an unforgettable life experience.

And when planning a safari, always make sure you have researched all necessary health precautions before you travel. Especially when going to regions with forest elephants, they live in wet, forested areas more likely to have mosquitoes that may carry malaria.  

Be a Responsible Wildlife Tourist

When you are near elephants in the wild turn off your vehicle’s engine and observe the their body language.  Unnecessary noise (car motors and fans, voices) or intrusive behavior are irritating and can precipitate a (hopefully) mock charge.

Watch for signs of annoyance including: head raised with tusks pointed at you, wide and/or flapping ear displays, tail up or away from body, trumpeting, and dust throwing and/or bush bashing, If one comes quickly toward you – and stops - this is a mock charge. Keeping still and quiet should convey that you are harmless. While a mock charge with lots of trumpeting and noise can be terrifying, the real charge usually comes silently.  Be responsible. Be aware. 

Animal exploitation in the name of "fun" is not fun. Although some places still offer elephant rides and interaction, remember: animals acclimated to humans cannot be released back into the wild.  

DO NOT: Ride, pet, feed, or encourage other's less-than-responsible behavior by patronizing places that have elephant or other wild animal "performances" and interactions.  


Special Thanks! 

For generously sharing images, expertise and help in understanding elephants.  

Dr. Laura Brown:
Special thanks for her dedication to the preservation of desert elephants  
Desert Elephant Conservation   Follow on Facebook
Marc Cronje, Independent Field Guide, South Africa  Follow Marc on Facebook
David Rigden, The Incidental Naturalist  Follow David on Twitter and Facebook    

Don't let them disappear. You can help contribute to their survival and treat your whole family to a wonderful experience - go see the African elephant in their natural homeland! Image: L.Medley for Destination:WIldlife

 Updated 9-06-16