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The big five “Elephants in Uganda”

The Species

For centuries it has been accepted that there have been two identified species of elephants living today African elephants, (Loxodonta Africana) and Asian elephants (Elephas Maximus).

African Savanna

Elephant herd

However, in 2001 scientific data identified that African elephants are actually two different species, the African Savannah, (Loxodonta Africana) and the African forest (Loxodonta cyclotis), The primary differences with their physical confirmation is that the African forest elephant is more slender, slightly smaller with straighter, smaller tusk and their ears are more rounded.  African savannah elephants are found in savannah zones in 37 countries south of the Sahara Desert. 

African Forest

African forest elephants inhabit the dense rainforests of west and central Africa.


Ramba in Chile

The Asian elephant has four subspecies: Sri Lankan, Indian, Sumatran and Malaysian. Each of these sub species have slightly different characteristics, many are difficult to distinguish. Sri Lankan elephants tend to be slender with larger ears, and many Sri Lankan male elephants are tuskless. Indian elephants tend to be lighter-skinned, Sumatran elephants are slightly stockier and Malaysian elephants are a little smaller in stature. There are reports of pigmy elephants in Borneo but little is know about them due to the dense forest and inaccessible regions where they live. Elephants from Burma are not classified as a sub species but they tend to have a lot of hair and darker complexions.

“Mammoths most closely resemble Asian elephants, while Mastodons resemble African elephants. “

The elephant taxonomic order, proboscidea, has only 3 members today, but it used to have over forty. Most of these thrived until the end of the last glacial period 12500 years ago. These creatures were generally similar in size to modern Asian elephants, although there were tiny dwarf elephants and the humongous deinotherium, 15 ft. (4.5 meters) tall and weighing 30,000 lbs. (14 tons).

Within proboscidea, the mastodon family mammutidae are modern elephants and the very famous mammoths. Mammoths most closely resemble Asian elephants, while Mastodons resemble African elephants. Mammoths had long curved tusks and were much hairier than even modern Asian elephants.

The last mammoth to go extinct was the woolly mammoth, whose numbers had dwindled as the climate warmed and was finally hunted to extinction in Europe, Asia, and the Americas 12000 years ago, although some populations isolated from humans persisted until as recently as 4000 years ago. Though the rock hyrax is the closest living relative to elephants, other close relatives include manatees and rhinoceroses.


Communication is vital to elephants, who rely on a social network for survival. Although elephants can make a very wide range of sounds (10 octaves), they mostly communicate through low-frequency sounds called “rumbling.†In fact, elephants are capable of producing and perceiving sounds one to two octaves lower than the human hearing limit.

As lower frequency sounds travel farther than their higher counterparts, their range of communication is extensive. Furthermore, elephants have the ability to judge the distance from another elephant based on the pitch of his/her call. As the sound travels over distances, the higher tones will fade out, leaving a lower pitch.

Click on the following sound files to hear examples of Asian elephants communicating:

Recent discoveries have shown that elephants can communicate over long distances by producing these sub-sonic rumbles that can travel through the ground faster than sound through air. Other elephants receive the messages through the sensitive skin on their feet and trunks. It is believed that this is how potential mates and social groups communicate.

Mating & Musth

Elephants are the only animals to have a temporal gland. When this gland becomes active the elephant enters a state of behaviour known as ‘musth’.  In the languages of northern India, musth (originally a Persian word) means a state of drunkenness, hilarity, ecstasy, desire or lust.

Musth is a condition unique to elephants, which has still not been scientifically explained. It affects sexually mature male elephants usually between the ages of 20 and 50. It occurs annually and lasts for a period of between 2-3 weeks in the wild, usually during the hot season. During this time, the elephant becomes highly agitated, aggressive and can be dangerous. Even normally placid animals have been known to kill people and other elephants when in the full throes of musth. It generally lasts 4 to 6 weeks in captivity but has been said to have lasted as long as 2 months.

African Elephant nbsp» Inspire African SafarisThe reasons for its occurrence are not fully understood. The animal is sexually agitated, but musth is not thought to be entirely sexual in nature. Elephants mate outside the musth period and it is not the same as the rutting season common in some other mammals. When in musth, a strong smelling oily secretion flows from a gland above the eye and elephants will also constantly dribble urine.

The temporal gland discharge can be quite free flowing and run down the elephant’s face dripping down their chin. While in musth everything changes with the elephant; the way they walk, their interactions with other elephants, the degree of aggression, and as mentioned, the odor they exude. In rare circumstances, if two male elephants in musth cross paths the ensuing fight can turn into a fight to the death.

It is difficult to describe just how extreme musth can affect an elephant’s normal disposition. Captive elephants experiencing musth are usually kept securely chained or isolated and managed from a distance until the torment subsides, after which they will return to their usual character.

Historically, captive male elephants in musth have been chained by all four legs, with chains from their tusks down to their feet, and from tusk to tusk in front of their trunks to prevent them from lunging with their heads and swinging their trunks at trainers. From the age of 45-50 musth gradually diminishes, eventually disappearing altogether. On very exceptional occasions, a form of musth has been recorded in females but little is known about its purpose.

Both sexes may become sexually mature at as early as 9 years, but males usually do not reach sexual activity until 14-15 years, and even then they are not capable of the social dominance that usually is necessary for successful reproductive activity. There is usually competition among the males for females that are in estrus.

If there is a male in musth present around females in estrus, non-musth males will generally back away from the competition; the level of testosterone in a musth male creates an unmatched degree of anger, aggression and strength. Often more than one male will gather around the area of a female that is ready to breed, and the most dominant male is the one who is allowed to carry out breeding. This can be decided peacefully, especially if the size and strength difference is obvious, or sometimes the elephants will fight over that rite.


AfricanElephant nbsp» Inspire African Safaris

In recent years, most zoo pregnancies are created through artificial insemination. This is an invasive procedure that the elephants have to be trained for. The elephant needs to stand still for long periods with minimal movement, sometimes necessitating the use of chains. A long, flexible hose is then inserted into the elephant’s winding, 3-foot-long reproductive tract, then sperm is pumped through the hose.

Females are only fertile for a few days each year, typically 2-3 days every 14-16 weeks. Blood samples are collected repeatedly to monitor hormone levels, to most accurately depict when to attempt artificial-insemination. The most attempts at artificial-insemination on record was an elephant who underwent the procedure 91 times in a 4 year time span.

Miscarriages and premature and stillborn deaths from artificial-insemination pregnancies reach approximately 54%. Out of 27 artificial-insemination pregnancies since 1999, documents show that eight resulted in miscarriages or stillborn deaths and an additional six calves died from disease, including from the herpes virus (The Seattle Times).


The infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is almost triple the rate in the wild. The overall infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is a staggering 40%. There are several causes behind this statistic, one is an elephant herpes virus known as EEHV, a disease that is most deadly in elephants under the age of 10. The virus, believed to spread by contact, could lie dormant for years, then move so swiftly it could destroy internal organs in hours.

Researchers have yet to develop a test to detect the virus in its dormant stage. An emerging theory is that the dormant virus may already reside in the bodies of elephants; when it turns active, it can spread by contact or be passed from mother to calf during pregnancy. This problem is compounded further by circulating elephants around the country to try to breed much-desired offspring. This disease has now been reported in over a dozen zoos throughout the country, as of 2012.

This link contains a brief description and animation that defines some of the harsh realities of captive elephant breeding programs.

African Elephant nbsp» Inspire African SafarisOther causes of calf deaths can be related to psychological reasons. Elephants in captivity are not surrounded by a nurturing herd of their relatives, who instinctively aid in child rearing and pass down their knowledge and experiences throughout generations.

Some elephants just do not know how to be mothers and there have been instances of mothers killing their own calves, a behavior that has never been reported in the wild.

As a result, some institutions chain the mothers during birth, to ensure the safety of the calf, and closely monitor their interactions. Calves sometimes are removed from their mothers and supplemented with bottle feeding when the mother acts out toward the calf or is resistant to nursing.

Frequently captive females are bred at a much younger age than they would breed in the wild. Not only can this potentially compromise the health of the calf and mother but with limited life experience, can cause complications with the care the young mother provides to her calf.


Elephants are some of the most intelligent animals on Earth. Their brains weigh 11 lbs. (5 kg.), much more than the brain of any other land animal. Their brains have more complex folds than all animals except whales, which is thought to be a major factor in their intellect.

They commonly show grief, humor, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, tool-use, playfulness, and excellent learning abilities. An elephant in Korea surprised its zoo keepers by independently learning to mimic the commands they gave it by verbalizing with the end of its trunk, successfully learning 8 words and their context.

Elephants have a more developed hippocampus, a brain region responsible for emotion and spatial awareness, than any other animal, and studies indicate that they are superior to humans in keeping track of multiple objects in 3D space. There are many reports of elephants showing altruism towards other species, such as rescuing trapped dogs at considerable cost to themselves.

They respect their dead and have death rituals. There are stories of the herds of elephants killed by humans retrieving the poached bones and returning them to the place of death to bury them. There are also reports of elephants avenging the death of a herd mate by going into the village of the individual who was responsible and hurting nothing or no one except the person responsible.

Aside from their ability to learn through watching and mimicking, elephants in captivity easily learn how to open simple locks and many master more complex ones, something impossible for most other animals due to a lack of dexterity and intellect.

Working elephants in Asia wear bells that help their mahouts locate them at night. In some cases elephants, have stuffed their bells with mud, silencing their movements which allows them to sneak into neighboring fields of rice, corn and sugar cane.

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