I read an article about African elephants the other day and while it did cover many things it actually never mentioned how old elephants get so I decided to do some research.
How old do elephants get? Wild African elephants can live for up to 70 years but in most cases, they reach between 50-65 years of age. Elephants in captivity have a significantly shorter lifespan of around 17 years.
African elephants are the largest living land mammal and while this in itself is impressive, there are a bunch of other fascinating facts about them. In this post, I will talk about how old elephants get under different conditions as well as some other interesting facts.
African Elephants can get Much Older in the Wild than in Captivity
As I mentioned briefly in the introduction of this post, studies have shown that African elephants generally live longer in the wild than in captivity.
In this regard, African elephants are a bit unusual compared to many other species of wild animals.
Many animals actually end up living significantly longer in captivity (if the conditions are good enough for the animal to thrive) than in the wild and there are several reasons for this.
One reason is that the animals that live in proper zoos have a steady source of food and water and do not have to face the challenge of finding this in the wild.
Another reason is that proper zoos supply medical attention to the animals that require this.
A third and quite important reason is that the animals in zoos are not faced with the challenge of natural enemies that may or may not be lurking in the dark, waiting to strike for an easy meal.
So as you can see, animals in zoos often have several advantages over animals in the wild so why is it that African elephants are the opposite way and actually live significantly longer in the wild than in captivity?
The full answer is quite complex and quite honestly largely unknown but studies have shown a couple of reasons why this is the case.
For one, elephants are very large animals. In fact, they are the largest living land mammal. In the wild, African elephants can roam many kilometers in a single day.
I have found several sources saying that the African elephant can roam up to as much as 80 km in a single day and while this is most likely not an every-day thing for the giant mammal, it is rarely (if ever) possible to roam even a tenth of that distance in captivity.
While many proper zoos try to provide their elephants with various activities and fairly large areas, it is impossible to provide anything that comes even close to the enormous African forests or savannas.
This lack of room for moving around and thereby getting exercise has been linked to obesity in the elephants which can be a major cause of death.
Another thing that has been linked to a shorter lifespan for elephants in captivity is stress.
Since elephants are so large, they have fewer natural enemies and are better capable of defending themselves. Newborn elephants are more exposed to predators but as they grow, they become increasingly harder for predators to take down.
In addition to this, many of the areas African elephants inhabit have a vast supply of sources of food and water.
So while medical care is (obviously) not provided to wild animals, some of the other things that lead to a longer life in captivity don’t apply to elephants as much as they do to other animals.
For these reasons (and likely other reasons too), African elephants actually often live a significantly longer life in the wild than in captivity.
Tricks to See if an Elephant is Old or Young
There are several giveaways as to whether you have spotted a young or an older African elephant.
First and foremost, and perhaps a bit obvious, is to look at the elephant’s size. Elephants weigh around 120 kilos at birth and grow well into the thousands of kilos over their lifetime.
A fully grown female African elephant usually weighs between 2200 and 3500 kilos. The large bulls usually way from 4000 and all the way up to around 6500 kilos. What a beast!
Another thing to keep an eye out for is the elephants tusks.
Elephants tusks usually start growing when the elephant is between 6 and 12 months old and then continue to grow throughout the elephants’ entire life.
Elephants’ tusks can actually grow up to as much as 17 cm in a single year. The largest tusks get up to as much as 3 meters in length and the largest single tusk ever on record is an astonishing 328 cm in length and 120 kg in weight.
So a quick, but by no means a perfect, way to determine whether the elephant you have spotted on your safari is old or young is to take a look at its tusks.
If the elephant’s tusks are short, chances are you have spotted a younger elephant (or perhaps a female as these often have shorter tusks than the bulls).
If, on the other hand, you see a giant elephant with tusks that are almost unbelievably long, chances are you have spotted an old bull.
Speaking of old African elephant bulls with large tusks. Have you heard about the so-called Magnificent Seven?
The Magnificent Seven Elephants
Although initially named such because of the impressive size of their tusks, the Magnificent Seven, are great examples of African elephant bulls that reached some impressive ages.
They lived in the Kruger National Park of South African at different times between the years approximately 1926 and 2000 and were all easily recognizable for different reasons and well-liked by both locals and tourists.
Below are the Magnificent Seven elephants of Kruger National Park. The years of birth and death (and thereby their age) are approximations as they are not all known with certainty.
- Dzombo (1935-1983) – Age 48
Dzombo was the only one of the Magnificent Seven elephants that were killed by poachers. Dzombo’s life sadly ended in a hail of AK-47 bullets from poachers who wanted the ivory from the giant tusks.
- João (1939-2000) – Age 61
Like Dzombo, João was also attacked by poachers but this one luckily managed to escape and survive.
- Kambaku (1930-1985) – Age 55
The word Kambaku means “old bull elephant”. Kambaku was one of the most well-known bulls in Kruger.
- Mafunyane (1926-1983) – Age 57
Probably the most characteristic thing about this bull elephant was the fact that he had a 10-cm-wide and 40-cm-deep gap in his skull which stretched into his nostril and therefore allowed him to breathe and consume rainwater through it. The origin of this gap is believed to be from a fight with another bull but is not known for sure.
- Ndlulamithi (1927-1985) – Age 58
The name means “higher than the trees” and comes from the elephant being taller than most others at 340-345 cm at the shoulders.
- Shawu (1926-1986) – Age 60
Shawu was also one of the largest of the Magnificent Seven, measuring 340 cm at the shoulders.
- Shingwedzi (1934-1981) – Age 47
Named after the river where he spent most of his time during the last years of his life, Shingwedzi was known as a pleasant and peaceful elephant.
In this post, I have covered the topic of how old African elephants get in both their natural habitat of African forests, savannas, etc. and in captivity as well as some of the reasons why African elephants, unlike many other animals, actually live significantly longer lives in the wild than in captivity.
In addition to that, I have covered some tricks to see if an elephant is young or old.
Lastly, I wrote a bit about the so-called Magnificent Seven bull elephants of Kruger National Park in South Africa. If you are interested in learning more about these seven elephants and you happen to find yourself in Kruger at some point, I highly recommend visiting the elephant museum in Letaba Rest Camp where the skulls and tusks of six (unfortunately those of the seventh were stolen and never found) of these large bulls are exhibited.