Elephantiana: The unsung matriarchy of the largest land animal

Elephants are born cute and it is almost impossible to talk about African wildlife without mentioning our beloved ‘Big 5’.

The term Big 5 was coined by big-game hunters referring to the lion, rhino, buffalo, leopard, and the elephant as the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot. The term is now also widely used by safari tour operators.

Elephants are no doubt one of the biggest attractions to tourists visiting African national parks.

Linguistically speaking

Speaking of coining a term, did you notice that the word ‘Elephantiana’ did not exist until today.  If you are reading this, congratulations! You are now a co-linguist to the author of this article! The author fused the words ‘Elephant + Ana’ to create a new word that defines the elephant female-led family system.

Unfortunately, the elephant is the most poached member of the Big 5 due to the high demand for its tusks in the wildlife black markets. Luckily, thorough efforts have been in place to eradicate these cruel activities.

Tanzania has a total population of at least 51,000 elephants, and the entire population is dominated by multiple decentralized queenships.


Weighing more than six tons, which is equivalent to the weight of a level-seated Toyota Coaster Bus, elephants are the largest animals on land. They are only found in Africa and Asia. While in some areas, they live in captivity or zoological gardens.

The African elephant has larger ears than the Asian. The African elephant has a round head that resembles an egg, while Asian elephants have twin dome-shaped heads with a little bit of brown fur on them.

The Asian elephant has a convex-shaped back that creates a convenient saddle for humans to hop on top and ride it like a horse, while the African elephant has a concave back. African male and female elephants often have tusks. In the case of Asian elephants, only males have tusks.

You may not have noticed it. On most occasions, the African elephant has two subspecies, namely the forest elephants and the savannah elephants. The latter have larger bodies and mostly tower more than ten feet. Robert Wardlow, the world’s tallest human being, is eight feet and 11 inches tall.

How they live

Elephants live in herds or clans. One clan can have between eight to a hundred elephants, and the vast majority of family members in these clans are females such as grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, and young males, all of led by the oldest female elephant.

Life expectancy

Like most humans, elephants live for 50 to 70 years. Don’t you think they deserve to live longer?


Elephants bear pregnancy for 22 months and give birth to a calf that weighs more than a hundred. When an elephant is born, its mother teaches and does everything for it, feeds it, protects it, bathes it, protects it from the sun, and supports it to walk. That is why you will often see an elephant calf walking under its mother’s belly.

An elephant calf sucks milk from its mother. When it is not sucking milk, the calf sucks its trunk like how a child sucks its thumb.

The task of raising calves is not done by the mother alone. Grandmothers, aunts, and sisters are also obliged to contribute to their upbringing. Though male calves usually disappear after puberty and become independent. The females rarely leave their families.

When the calf is in danger, it gets help from all directions, and it is the responsibility of every family to ensure its safety. This loyalty can lead to one elephant losing its life to save a calf or an entire herd.


Elephants do makeup. This act involves the elephant using its trunk to spray mud and soil on its back and can also do the same on her calf to protect its skin from the scorching sun.


The elephant’s main diet is plants especially grass, leaves, flowers, fruits and twigs. They can eat up to 150kg per day as they spend more than 10 hours of their day feeding alongside zebras.

Trunk and tusks

The elephant’s muscular trunk plucks grass and tree branches. The trunk is also used as a nose, as a right hand for scooping food, and for drinking water. Trunks can bear up to 14 litres of water.

The trunk is also their handiest investigative tool. If you are on a safari game drive in any national park and an elephant comes snooping around with its trunk in your car, just stay put like a mannequin and it will all be fine.

Elephant trunks also serve as arms used for digging roots, marking trees as their territories, and also using them as weapons during battle.

Elephants in battle use tusks and trunks to strike and feet to trample their enemies when they are down.

The male elephant easily gets angry during the mating season if obstructed from mating. Two males can fight over a female until one of them emerges victorious. This animal is also highly irritated by noise, their big ears can’t help but be overly sensitive.

Intelligence and emotion

An elephant is a kind and compassionate creature but that must not be mistaken for weakness. Elephants do not run away from battles but follow their opponents and fight them.

Elephants are more intelligent than most animals.  They can recognize music, feel happy, have fun and play a game that they are taught. They also have very good memory.

Unlike other animals, elephants recognize themselves when they see their reflection in the mirror and cannot assume that they have seen another elephant.

When a family member dies, elephants mourn together in grief. The mourning is led by the female elephants who are the majority in the family. Males prefer to exempt themselves from family obligations.

When an elephant calf loses its mother, it remains orphaned, and its aunts take on the responsibility of raising it.  The upbringing cannot be the same as that of the mother and because of the reduced security in the jungle, chances of the calf making it to adulthood are reduced. According to hyenas, an elephant’s calf is a tasty snack.

I and other interesting individuals love to secretly follow elephant lives in national parks and game reserves. Feel free to join us!

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