(Header image: The ghost of Africa’s largest “Big Tusker”( Image captured in November 2013). In his day iSilo was the largest “Big Tusker” in Africa (*A “Big Tusker” is an elephant which has at least one or both tusks weighing no less than 45 Kilos/ 100 Lbs or greater).….. He died at a ripe old age of >65 years, of natural causes in the Tembe Elephant Park — Northern Kwa Zulu Natal — South Africa……. His very survival was due largely to the extremely dense, impenetrable Sand forest found in that area – A refuge from poachers’ bullets!)
In ideal, natural surroundings where the habitat is able to provide ample water and the various food sources that elephants need to live happily, a typical family group comprises up to about 20–25 animals, ranging from the babies to teenagers (both sexes), right up to adult females, led by a matriarch which is usually the oldest and largest female. Quite often females will be related by blood-line. These groups are also known as breeding herds.
Adult bulls, while never very far away, are seldom found running with a breeding herd for more a day or two, as they usually keep to themselves, or are found in separate bachelor groups.
Certain environmental (Availability of food) and climatic conditions (Droughts and floods etc) occasionally influence these family groups to come together and form much larger, but loosely formed groups, numbering over a hundred in some cases. But usually this is only on a temporary basis to either take advantage of particular conditions, or just for survival in times when food and water are scarce, and then it becomes a case of “everyone for themselves”.
The young bulls start their food weening process from the age of 5years to about 10 years of age, and will be tolerated as they reach elephant puberty at approximately 16years to 17 years of age.
The young bulls become sexually mature and start paying attention to the cows which come into oestrus (12 years to 14 years of age. The time of ovulation aka: On heat), and it becomes the responsibility the matriarch to ensure that those young bulls do not have access to the cows in oestrus, and a second phase of social weening occurs by literally forcing those young bulls out of the breeding herd.
This is a very difficult time for these young bulls, which will continue to trail the breeding herd for their own security, until a large elephant bull picks up the pheromone trail of one of the cows in oestrus, in that herd.
At this time the younger bull will join up with that larger bull which could be on his own, or accompanied by a few other, younger, smaller bulls. These groups are known as bachelor herds and can number up to six or more individual bulls of varying ages.
Nature now hands over the social breeding responsibility of “bull control” to the largest bull in that bachelor group, who is the natural leader by his sheer weight, size and power which ensures that he is the bull who will mate with that particular cow in oestrus.
On average, a bull reaches full maturity, and is large enough to win a fight against another large bull at about the age of 40 years to 45 years.
The grand old gentleman, iSilo walks slowly, but deliberately to a waterhole to quench his thirst. *This image was captured just before his death in November 2013. He died of natural causes at the ripe old age of >65 years old…… He only survived the poachers’ bullets because he was protected by natural, impenetrable bush!
If there is another large bull in that bachelor group who believes that he can challenge the larger of the two bulls for supremacy and breeding rights to that cow in oestrus he, may take his chances. Such challenges can have disastrous consequences, resulting the death of the weaker bull, thus ensuring that only the dominant genes are passed on to the next generation.
The victorious bull usually moves his prize off, and out of the way of the breeding herd, where he will mate with her over a period of between one to three days while she is receptive, and he may even remain a little longer to shield her from the attention of other possible suitors. Once the courtship has been completed, she will return to her same breeding herd, and he will re-join his bachelor group.
A typical elephant gestation period lasts about 22 months, and the cycle between possible births is up to about 5 years, but this is variable and influenced by numerous factors, such as climatic conditions and food etc.
An elephant never stops growing from the day it is born, and under ideal conditions, the males will start to grow exponentially from the age of approximately 35 years of age. This includes their tusks which are simply enlarged incisors.
If you analyse the life of an elephant, he really cannot make any meaningful contribution to the elephant gene pool for more than a period of 10 years between the ages of 40 years old to about 50 years old, and that is also providing he isn’t killed by another large bull before that time!
At best, only 10 short years of a breeding window… This is frightening!
The natural life span of an elephant under ideal conditions, is approximately 60 years to 70 years old, and during that lifespan an elephant, will develop six sets of molars. As the last of those molars get worn down and eventually fall out, the elephant starts to lose condition, due to lack of nourishment and tends to move and stay near water and softer food. In their last days, they sadly just die of starvation….
Apart from an elephant’s own particular arduous lifestyle, poachers’ guns, poison and traps are non-discriminatory, and many of Africa’s potential “Big Tuskers” (an elephant with a tusk/s of 100 lbs / 40 Kilos or more.) never even get to full maturity or even have the opportunity to pass their valuable genes on to the next generation!
Loxodonta. Africana) we will at least give the African elephant a chance to survive as a species…
Only by protecting and providing suitable habitat will enable future generations of people to enjoy these wonderful animals…