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NATURAL DIET - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment (Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Loxodonta africana - African Elephant

NATURAL DIET: African elephants eat a wide variety of vegetation, including grass, herbs, shrubs, roots, fruit, and bark as well as foliage and twigs from trees. The proportion of grass versus browse in the diet reflects their availability and their nutrient value and changes with season. While a wide variety of plant species may be included in the diet, often a relative few make up the bulk of the diet. 

QUANTITY EATEN: Elephants eat about 5% of their body weight per day (wet weight of food). Various studies, using different methods of calculation, such as weight of stomach contents, weight of faeces and number of trunkfuls of food per day, give different estimates, such as an average of 150 kg per day for females, 170 kg for males in one study based on number of trunkfuls per day, and 120 - 270 kg based on faecal output, while it has also been suggested that elephants may eat 200 - 300 kg of food per day. Estimates of water intake vary from 60 - 120 litres per day to 140 - 200 litres per day.

STUDY METHODS: Study methods include observation of feeding elephants, examination of an area after elephants have fed there, examination of faeces and examination of stomach contents.

(References are available in detailed literature reports below)

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Natural Diet

Source Information SUMMARY:
  • African elephants eat a wide variety of vegetation, including grass, herbs, shrubs, roots, fruit, and bark as well as foliage and twigs from trees. The proportion of grass versus browse in the diet reflects their availability and their nutrient value and changes with season. While a wide variety of plant species may be included in the diet, often a relative few make up the bulk of the diet. 

General:

  • African elephants eat grass, foliage, bark and twigs from trees, herbs, shrubs, roots and fruit. (B147)
  • Foods eaten appears to vary seasonally: much more grass is consumed in the rainy season than in the dry season. (B147)
  • Elephants may push trees over to access edible leaves and twigs; this can modify habitat over large areas. (B147)
  • A study of the stomach contents of African elephants found that the average composition was: fibre 35.7%, carbohydrate 43.5%, protein 8.4%, fat 1.5%, minerals 8.4%. (B10.49.w21)
  • Savanna elephants eat grasses together with smaller quantities of leaves fro a variety of shrubs and trees. In the dry season when the grasses have dried up, they eat woods parts of trees and shrubs. Other food items include roots, and, when available, flowers and fruits. (B285.w3)
  • Early in the wet season, grasses are more nutritious than the mature leafy browse, of shrubs and trees, and are eaten preferentially. In the dry season the nutrient quality of grass is decreased, but that of leafy browse is higher, since many trees and shrubs flower and come into leaf at this time. (B384.9.w9)
  • The proportions of grass and browse eaten reflect their nutrient value and their availability. 
    • In Murchison, where little browse was available, grass made up 84 to 95% of the diet, on average. (B384.9.w9)
    • In Ruaha Park, in a very dry year (1976) cow elephants were eating woody browse as more than 80% of their diet; on this diet their body condition declined. (B384.9.w9)
    • In Hwange Park, grass was lass than 10% of the diet in mid-April to mid-November, increased to more than half the diet from mid-December to the end of March, peaking in February at 98% of the diet, while from July to September the diet was composed of twigs, bark and roots. It was noted that the diet was low in protein from July to late September or early October when the grass flushes. (B384.9.w9)
    • When grass is in its first flush it is high in moisture and intake is balanced with more fibrous foods. (B384.9.w9)
  • More than 100 different species of plants may be eaten but only a few species make up the main bulk of the diet. (B384.9.w9)
  • In Hwange Park elephants have been recorded eating more than 87 browse species, 42 grasses and 36 forb species. (B384.9.w9)
  • In Kibale forest, Uganda, 227 of 255 known species present were eaten, but just 30 species made up 75% of the total quantity consumed. (B384.9.w9) Generally more herbaceous foliage than woody forge was taken on a volume basis, but feeding on woody vegetation occurred more commonly. Often woody vegetation was stripped of leaves without the stems being taken. (B384.9.w9)
  • Various grasses are eaten including short grasses such as star grass, taller species such as red-oat grass, Panicum, Setaria and Hyparrhenia and elephant grass, which may be eaten because no preferred species are available. In the wet season the leaves and flowers are taken; in the dry season leaf bases and roots of tussock grasses are eaten. (B384.9.w9)
  • In Uganda, 99% of stomachs examined contained mature grass, 56% contained young grass and 35% contained a significant quantity of woody vegetation. Combretum binderianum was commonly present. (B384.9.w9)
  • Combretums are often heavily browsed since they are often the first trees to produce new leaves after dry season fires. (B384.9.w9)
  • Acacias are also favoured food items. (B384.9.w9)
  • In Ruaha Park (semi-arid area), in the wet season the main foods were green grass and green browse while in the dry season woody browse was eaten. (B384.9.w9)
  • In the Kalahari sands, which are soft, roots tubers and bulbs are taken, such as roots of large-fruited combretum, variable combretum, sickle bush, silver terminalia and coppice bloodwood tree. (B384.9.w9)
  • In African swamps, newly grown heads of papyrus is a favoured food. Roots of papyrus (probably mainly young roots) are eaten when the parts of the plants above the surface have died. Roots of reeds such as phragmites are also eaten. (B384.9.w9)
  • Cotton plants, particularly as the bolls start to open, are a preferred food item. (B384.9.w9)
  • A study in East Africa found that for elephants in the Murchison Falls National Park (Uganda), stomachs of elephants from the North bank population contained about 84% grasses, 14.5% bark and 1.5% browse. Grasses consumed included Sporabolus pyramidalis and Hyparrhenia sp., Combretum sp. browse was identified and Combretum binderanum and Terminalia velutina bark were noted. (P17.21.w1)
  • The diet of African elephants varies seasonally and includes grasses, papyrus, moist, soft river and lake vegetation (particularly favoured by elderly individuals), fruits, leaves, buds, twigs, branches and bark from trees, flowers of some vines, shoots, leaves and stems of bamboo, roots of some trees, storage tubers, corms and bulbs on some plats, succulents such as aloes and Sansevieria etc. (B453.2.w2)
    • Prefered foods include papyrus, reeds and river bank sedges, bamboo, baobab, some palms, aloes, Sansevieria and Borassus palm fruits. (B453.2.w2)
    • Exotic plants such as banana, maize, citrus fruits, sisal, sugar cane etc. are also eaten. (B453.2.w2)
    • Elderly elephants with little of their final molar remaining will stay in swamp or river bank areas and eat "soft moist stems of low sedges, rushes and papyrus." (B453.7.w7)
  • Food choice in elephants may be learned, from observation of other individuals in the herd, and maternal direction, rather than being instinctive. (B453.2.w2)
  • Elephants enjoy cultivated millet and the exotic cultivated bananas, mangoes, maize, oranges and sugar cane. (B453.8.w8)
  • Many studies have shown that grasses are an important component of the elephant's diet. (B451.5.w5)
    • A study in Rwenzori National Park, Uganda, found that foods were eaten in proportion to their availability. During the period August to May, in a long grass area, the diet contained grass (45.0 - 92.5%, monthly mean 71.1%), browse (1.0-11.%, mean 6.4%) and forbes (1.5 - 49.0%, mean 22.9%), while in the short grass area the diet was composed of grass 31.0-74.0% (mean 54.8%), browse 8.0 - 45.0% (mean 20.6%), forbes 9.0-42.0% (mean 24.6%). (B451.5.w5). In both areas, but particularly in the short grass area, browse consumption increased in the dry season. It was noted that some browse was eaten in the long grass area even when some effort would have been required to find it, while in the short grass area, grass remained the dominant part of the diet even when browse was readily available and could have been eaten exclusively. (B451.5.w5)
    • A study in the semi-arid north-east of Uganda, in Kidepo Valley National Park, found the diet was grass 46%, forbes 17%, trees 29% and shrubs 9%, with much less grass taken in the dry than in the wet months: 28.6% versus 57.2%. (B451.5.w5)
    • In a study in Zimbabwe, based on observation of elephants while they were eating, overall, more browse was taken than grass, with a grass: browse ratio of 1:7.5 in the hot season when grass is dried up, but in the wet season, when grass is actively growing, the ratio was 1:0.4. (B451.5.w5)
  • Elephants do not just eat what is available, but actively choose what to eat. (B451.5.w5)
  • Elephants have often been observed to eat soils, which may provide minerals such as sodium and calcium. An additional function may be adsorption of toxic secondary plant compounds such as phenols in browse, with some soils chosen having high levels of kaolin (e.g. 35% in a soil eaten by elephants at Ngorongoro. (J82.31.w1)

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Quantity Eaten

Source Information SUMMARY: Elephants eat about 5% of their body weight per day (wet weight of food). Various studies, using different methods of calculation, such as weight of stomach contents, weight of faeces and number of trunkfuls of food per day, give different estimates, such as an average of 150 kg per day for females, 170 kg for males in one study based on number of trunkfuls per day, and 120 - 270 kg based on faecal output, while it has also been suggested that elephants may eat 200 - 300 kg of food per day. Estimates of water intake vary from 60 - 120 litres per day to 140 - 200 litres per day.
  • Elephants may eat 200 to 300 kg of food per day. (B147)
  • Adult elephants may eat as much as 280 kg of food per day. (B10.49.w21)
  • An adult elephant needs 75 - 150 kg (165 - 330 lb) food per day. (B285.w3)
  • Per kg of metabolic body weight, an Asian elephant requires 108 g dry plant matter per day and 6 g of digestible crude protein. (B384.4.w4)
    • For a large bull of 6.7 kg this would be a requirement for about 67 kg dry matter, including 4 kg protein, or about 167 kg fresh forage. (B384.4.w4)
  • In Zaire, domesticated elephants took about 150 kg food per day. (B384.9.w9)
    • This is about 60 kg dry matter per day. (B384.9.w9)
  • In the Sengwa area, estimated intake was about 170 kg per day for a bull African elephant and 150 kg per day for a cow elephant. (B384.9.w9)
  • Mean daily food intake is about 1.0 - 1.2% of body mass per day for a bull or a non-lactating cow and 1.2-1.5% for a lactating cow. (B384.9.w9)
  • A growing elephant weighing about a tonne requires about 0.3 kg digestible protein per day; a protein percentage of 6% would be required for this. (B384.9.w9)
  • A study in East Africa found that on average, females had a greater stomach fill for body size than did males: for Murchison Falls National Park (Uganda) North bank, females had a mean fill of 2.8% body weight (range 1.13 - 6.25%) while males had a mean fill of 2.4% (0.22 - 4.58% of live body weight). (P17.21.w1)
    • Actual fill was for 1,800 - 2,300 kg animals, in females 33 to 86 kg, in males 15 - 64 kg, for body weights 2,300 - 2,700 kg, in females 27 to 150 kg ) and in males 45 - 89 kg. For animals of 2,700 kg, in females the mean maximum fill was about 140 kg and in males about 95 kg. (P17.21.w1)
    • It was considered, provisionally, that the wet weight of stomach contents represented about 50% of daily food intake, giving a total intake of about 5.6% body weight for females, 4.8% for males. (P17.21.w1)
  • An adult African bull elephant may eat 300 - 350 lb vegetation per day. (B453.8.w8)
  • For African elephants, estimates of daily food intake vary from 120 - 300 kg per day (fresh weight). Note: dry weight is about 25% of fresh weight. (B451.5.w5)
    • Studies based on weight of faeces give estimates of 120 kg to 270 kg per day. (B451.5.w5)
    • A study based on observed number of trunkfuls and estimated weight per trunkful gave average intakes of 150 kg/day for females, 170 kg/day for males, and highest values, in the wet season, of 200 kg/day for females, 225 kg/day for males. (B451.5.w5)
  • It may be necessary for adequate digestion to have a certain amount of fibrous bulk in the diet; eating bark during the wet season, when much of the diet is young grass, may provide this roughage. (B451.5.w5)
  • Elephants eat about 5% of their body weight in food per day - about 300 kg per 24 hours for a mature elephant. (B387.w4)
  • In the wet season, grass is the most abundant vegetation in savannahs and in woodlands, and is the major part of the diet. (B387.w4)
  • In grasslands, marshes and swamps, grasses, sedges and herbs may provide most of the diet. (B387.w4)
  • In a richly wooded habitat of north-western Rhodesia, in the wet season grass made up 70% of the diet and in the dry season it was still 34% of the diet; browse was more important at this time. (B387.w4)
  • It has been suggested that bark may be eaten to provide required fatty acids otherwise deficient in the diet. (B387.w4)

Water:

  • Adult elephants drink about 140 to 200 L water per day; smaller individuals require less water. (B10.49.w21)
  • Elephants may drink 160 litres of water per day. (B147)
  • Elephants require 80 - 160 L (20 - 40 US gallons) of water per day. (B285.w3)

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Dietary Study Methods

Source Information SUMMARY: Study methods include observation of feeding elephants, examination of an area after elephants have fed there, examination of faeces and examination of stomach contents.
  • Many studies have been based on examination of contents of faeces, or on feeding time. Both can be misleading and may not match one another. (B384.9.w9)
  • Estimates of the quantity eaten in a day have been made based on the number of trunkfuls of food consumed and the estimated average weight of such a trunkful. (B384.9.w9)
  • A study of elephants in East Africa was based on the actual contents of the stomachs of shot elephants. (P17.21.w1)
  • Qualitative studies on food eaten have been made variously based on:
    • A sample of stomach contents, preferably from the pyloric region, where food items will not have been much digested. (B451.2.w2)
    • Identification of items in droppings: allowance must be made for differential digestion of different items. (B451.2.w2)
    • Observation of elephants eating. Elephants often wave food items in the trunk before placing them in the mouth, but this method requires the observer being able to get sufficiently close to identify the plants, and having the ability to identify them. (B451.2.w2)
    • Observation of vegetation after elephants have eaten. This requires the ability to identify the plants eaten, and to recognise when foliage has been torn down but not eaten, or when it has been damaged by other herbivores, not the elephants. (B451.2.w2)
  • Quantitative studies may be made based on:
    • Estimating the average weight of a trunkful of food, and multiplying by the number of trunkfuls consumed. (B451.2.w2)
    • Weighing droppings and using a ration of food eaten to droppings weight. This ratio is available only from the work of Benedict with a single Asian elephant cow, Jap, fed on hay, therefore its applicability to other elephants in the wild is limited. (B451.2.w2)
    • The weight of stomach contents, as a quantitative index. The Food Intake Index, expressing stomach fill weight as a percentage of live weight, can be used to compare intake between regions and seasons. (B451.2.w2)
    • Available food, estimated using an experienced observer to not only identify edible vegetation but also assess consumable parts of the plants. (B451.2.w2)
  • Note: It has been suggested (B453.2.w2) that the results of studies in the mid twentieth century on African elephants reflect available food in remaining habitat rather than the "true" natural diet of the elephant in the past when it was more able to move between geographical areas with the changing seasons. 

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Authors & Referees

Authors Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee Susan K. Mikota DVM (V.w72)

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