The Diet of African Elephants

The African Elephant (Loxodonta Africana) is the largest species of land dwelling animal on the planet. The height of an adult ranges between 8.2ft (2.5m) and 13ft (4m) and they can weigh from 5 000lbs (2268kg) to 14 000lbs (6350kg), though the largest specimen on display in a museum (the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History) was a bull that came from Angola and weighed a massive 22 000lbs (9979kg). It is therefore unsurprising that African Elephants need to eat between 300lbs (136kg) and 500lbs (225kg) of plant matter and drink up to 50 gallons (227 litres) of water every day. It is surprising, however, that of that mass consumed only around 40-45 percent is actually digested by the elephant.

Such a large amount of food is not easy to consume on a daily basis and African Elephants have to spend up to sixteen hours every day foraging for it. Although they may use their tusks to break through dead vegetation to reach greener shoots or to dig the ground to unearth roots or ground water, it is definitely the trunk that is the most important of the elephant’s features when it comes to sustaining itself. The trunk has evolved from the upper lip and nose, which have become fused and elongated to form a single dexterous appendage that contains over one hundred thousand muscles. Elephants use their trunk to pick up or grab food; the African Elephant has two finger like growths on the end of their trunk which are used to pick up smaller items. They also use their trunks when drinking; they suck water half way up the trunk before depositing it in their mouths.

Once any food is in its mouth, the African Elephant uses four large molars to grind it down. Over time these teeth are worn away and are replaced by new teeth that grow at the back of the mouth and move forwards. During its lifetime an African Elephant will have four sets of teeth, including its milk teeth, the last of which being worn out usually by the time they are seventy years old. Generally this will lead to the elephant’s death through starvation, though some specimens have been known to live for up to eighty years in captivity.

African Elephants are herbivores and in the wild they will eat a variety of food often dictated by what is available in the area they inhabit. They will generally eat roots, grasses, twigs, leaves, seed pods and even bark. They will also eat fruit when it is available to them. Many African Elephants will supplement their diets by eating soil for its mineral properties. As stated previously they may adapt their diet according to their habitat and some elephants living on the shores of lakes are known to feed on water plants on a regular basis, it is also the case that when they come into contact with human crop plantations they will generally decimate them, a major cause of the rivalry between elephants and man. For older African Elephants, who are unable to find or eat food so readily, papyrus can provide an easily obtainable and digestible form of sustenance.

In Captivity African Elephants are generally fed on a mix of hay, fresh fruit and vegetables, special herbivore pellets and Acacia browse or other leafy branches. While in captivity elephants will usually be fed less food in weight because what they eat is nutritionally designed for their dietary requirements.