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NATURAL DIET - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment (Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Loxodonta cyclotis - Forest Elephant

NATURAL DIET: Few studies have been carried out on the diet of Loxodonta cyclotis - Forest Elephant. From an Ivory Coast study, it was found that leaves, twigs, branches and bark of many plants (67 species identified) were eaten; many fruits were eaten during the main fruiting season. Both foliage and grass were consumed in secondary forest areas.

[Detailed data is from Loxodonta spp. but not necessarily Loxodonta cyclotis; until very recently this was considered as a subspecies of Loxodonta africana - African Elephant]: 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: Few studies have been carried out on the diet of Loxodonta cyclotis - Forest Elephant. From an Ivory Coast study, it was found that leaves, twigs, branches and bark of many plants (67 species identified) were eaten; many fruits were eaten during the main fruiting season. Both foliage and grass were consumed in secondary forest areas.

General:

  • Few studies have been carried out on the diet of this species. (B451.5.w5)
    • In a study in the Ivory Coast, during the fruiting season (December to February) a wide variety of fruits were eaten, with seeds of up to 29 different species being found in the droppings in January and 26 in February, and making up as much as 35% of the dry weight of the dung. After this fewer seed types were found (in March 12, in April 11 and in May only three). At other times, a wide variety of plants were eaten, with 67 species identified, and including leaves, twigs, branches and bark. Trees knocked over and mainly eaten came from 41 species. It was clear that certain species were particularly favoured. Secondary forest was very attractive to the elephants with foliage but also some grass, from open spaces, eaten. (B451.5.w5)
  • Further information on the diet of African elephants is provided in African Elephant Loxodonta africana - Natural Diet (Literature Reports)

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Quantity Eaten

Source Information [Detailed data is from Loxodonta spp. but not necessarily Loxodonta cyclotis; until very recently this was considered as a subspecies of Loxodonta africana - African Elephant]:

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.

[Detailed data is from Loxodonta spp. but not necessarily Loxodonta cyclotis; until very recently this was considered as a subspecies of Loxodonta africana - African Elephant]:

  • 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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