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Although the African elephant is the largest and most powerful of all living land mammals, it is also among the most gentle, living in peaceful family units. Essentially an animal of open grassland, the African elephant is adaptable enough to live happily in a variety of habitats within its sub-Saharan African homeland. But wherever it lives, the elephant never strays far from a supply of drinking and bathing water.

Elephants are social animals with strong family ties. So close are the relationships that they even bury their dead with twigs and leaves. They also grieve over their loss, staying by the grave for many hours. Females and their calves live in family units under the leadership of a mature female, to whom every other member of the group is related. Young males are driven from the family when they reach puberty to live in separate bachelor herds. Adult males live alone and join a family unit only briefly when a female is ready to mate. Herds may wander great distances, but they never move far from water. Elephants like baths every evening, so they stay close to any available pool or stream. They will make do with a shower if water is scarce. After bathing they coat their skin in dirt for protection from insects.

When elephants are foraging for food out of sight of one another, they communicate by making rumbling noises similar to gargling. Conflicts between elephants are communicated by a threat display in which the superior will twirl its trunk or throw dust into the air. The display is also used to warn enemies. If its signals are ignored, the threatened elephant may charge at its attacker. But charges are rarely carried through, at the last moment, the elephant either stops short or turns aside.

Elephants are entirely vegetarian. They eat a wide variety of grasses, foliage, fruit, and small branches and twigs. They gather food with the aid of their trunk and then place it into their mouths. The few teeth elephants have are used to grind their food. Elephants have gigantic appetites. Night, early morning, and evening are their favorite eating and drinking times, but they also eat all day on the move.

Elephants mate when they are 14 or 15 years old. Courtship involves a display of affection between the male and female in which they caress each other with their trunks. A single calf, standing about 33 inches high and weighing approximately 250 pounds is born 22 months later. The calf is suckled for at least 2 years and remains in the family unit after the birth of its mother’s next calf. A female usually gives birth about every 4 years and will often have two or three calves with her at the same time. Females defend their young vigorously, charging any intruders.

The African elephant is now endangered. Hunting is banned, but poaching for ivory is still widespread. Gamekeepers are almost powerless against the sophisticated machine guns used by poachers.