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African Elephants (Loxodonta africana and L. cyclotis) Fact Sheet: Reproduction & Development

Update in Progress

Dear Readers,

This fact sheet, like an elephant, is aging gracefully. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is working to bring you an updated version of the African Elephants Fact Sheet with new science and conservation information. Thanks for your patience, as our tusks go to the ground and dig into this huge project. Please check back soon. SDZWA team members can email questions to

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Sexual behavior/courtship

  • Bulls sniff and taste urine of cows
    • Males examine excretory products for the presence of sex pheromone
    • Transfer a sample with their trunk to the vomeronasal organ on roof of their mouth
  • Females alters behavior to signal males of reproductive receptivity
    • Estrus females signal their location to bulls a few kilometers away with a series of loud, very low frequency calls
    • Females exhibit a typical "estrous walk"; male display a characteristic "musth walk" (Sukumar 2003)
    • Cow backs up to the bull allowing confirmation of estrus

Mate preference

  • Females prefer large bulls, in their prime
    • Bulls typically 40-50 years old

Bulls aggresive during musth

  • A period of heightened sexual and aggressive activity in bulls
    • Each male comes into musth at a specific time each year (varies from male to male)
      • Typically lasts 6-12 weeks, but year-long musth periods have been recorded
        • Secretions are produced from swollen temporal glands
        • Urine dribbles from greenish-appearing penis
        • Frequent mating calls are made
      • Bulls in the depths of musth are often anorexic
      • Although estrous females prefer large musth bulls in their prime they are frequently bad breeders because of over-aggressiveness


Year-round reproduction

  • Matings and births occur throughout the year
    • Reproduction may be associated with rainfall

Estrus cycle of cow is unusually long

  • 13-16 weeks
    • Luteal phase 9-12 weeks
    • Follicular phase 3-5 weeks
  • Ovulation lasts about 4 days

Gestation and Birth


  • Averages 22 months


  • Timing of parturition
    • Most frequent during rains
  • Litter size
    • Usually one
    • Twins are rare
  • Neonate size and appearance
    • Weight: 90-120 kg (198-265 lb)
    • Height: 80-100 cm (2'8" - 3'3")
    • Nearly blind
      • Entirely dependent upon mother and family relatives

Interbirth interval

  • 4-6 year calving interval is common
    • May last 10 years

Reproductive Rate

  • Lifetime reproductive output
    • A female can produce 7 offspring in her life
      • Oldest confirmed conception: 36 years
      • Food availability and population density influence the frequency of birth

Life Stages

Infant (< 1 year old)

  • Development
    • 1st three months spent developing motor skills
    • 3-4 months begin to feed on their own
    • Young elephants have deciduous tusks (tushes)
    • Tushes are replaced by permanent tusks between 6 months-1 year (Fowler 1993)
    • Weaning 2-3 years
      • Calf's nursing inhibits mother's estrus
    • Developmental patterns similar for both sexes until age 10


  • Sexual maturity
    • Males
      • In the wild, males capable of reproduction c. 12-15 years though they typically do not breed until their mid to late 20s
      • First reproduce c. 7 years of age in managed care
    • Females
      • In the wild, 10-11 years in the wild
      • First reproduce c. 6 years of age in managed care
  • Growth
    • Unlike other mammals elephants grow continuously
      • Female growth slows considerably after 25 years; c. 2,800 kg (6,173 lb)
      • Male growth slows by 50-60 years; c. 5,000 kg (11,023 lb)
  • Value of old individuals
    • Older female matriarchs impart invaluable knowledge and survival skills to herd

Typical Life Expectancy

Wild populations

  • Life expectancy varies, depending on population, sex, amount of hunting pressure, etc.
  • Typical life expectancy needs more study, but likely about 30 to 40 years (e.g., Moss 2001; Lee et al. 2012; Lee et al. 2016)
    • In Amboseli, about 37 years for males and 47 years for females (Lee, Lindsay, et al. 2011)

Managed care

  • Median life expectancy
    • Females: 39.4 years (AZA 2024)



  • Predatory animals work in groups to target elephants
    • A group of lions may attack and kill young elephants

Accidents and natural disasters

  • Accidental deaths
    • Accidental slips and falls
    • Bulls killed during reproductive musth
  • Drought

Killed by humans

  • Humans kill elephants in defense of their crops
  • Poaching

Natural aging

  • Elephants can only live as long as their teeth support them
    • As each tooth is worn down, it passes to the front of the mouth and falls out to be replaced by the next in line
    • When the last tooth is used, the elephant is unable to chew its food properly
    • Can use softer vegetation in swamps for a time

African elephants at SDZ Safari Park

African elephant calf with family

African elephant calf with family.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

African elephant calf

African elephant calf.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Eltringham (1992)
Estes (1991)
Estes (1993)
Fowler (1993)
Moss (2000)
Sukumar (2003)
ZIMS (2017)

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