The largest living land mammal on Earth, the African elephant, can weigh over six tonnes. The elephant is distinguished by its massive body, large ears and a long trunk, which has many uses ranging from food gathering, to using it as a hand to pick up objects, as a horn to trumpet warnings, as an arm raised in greeting, or as a hose for drinking water or bathing.
Asian elephants differ in several ways from their African relatives. They are smaller in size and their ears are straight at the bottom, unlike the large fan-shaped ears of the African species.
Female Asian elephants commonly lack tusks but male and female African elephants usually have tusks. The digits of an elephant’s foot are not externally visible but the number of toenails that an elephant has varies depending on the species.
Led by a matriarch, elephants are organised into complex social structures of females and calves, while male elephants tend to live in isolation. During an expected lifespan of about 60 years, a female may give birth to between five and fifteen calves. The gestation period for African elephants is 22 months - the longest of any mammal.
Both African and Asian elephants need extensive land to survive.
Illegal wildlife trade
Threats to elephants
In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade in ivory.
However, there are still some thriving but unregulated domestic ivory markets in a number of countries, which fuel an illegal international trade. Poaching to meet growing demand from affluent Asian countries is driving up the rate of poaching.
Elephants are also losing their habitats - and ancient migratory routes - due to expanding human settlements, plantation development and the construction of infrastructure such as roads, canals and pipelines. As a result, the level of human-elephant conflict rises as elephants are forced to try access resources.
What WWF is doing for elephants
- Reducing conflict between people and elephants
- Strengthening anti-poaching initiatives
- Stopping illegal ivory trade
- Protecting elephant habitat
ILLEGAL WILDLIFE TRADE
Today, the killing of elephants driven by the illegal ivory trade has reached crisis levels in Africa. Despite the ivory trade being banned in 1989, every year over 12,000 elephants are killed in central Africa.
Often killed by helicopter-borne attacks by professionals who swoop over their quarry, the elephant horns are then removed and smuggled on the ‘Ivory Road’ linking Africa to Asia.
Learn more about Illegal Wildlife Trade.