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Elephants are highly social animals with a complex range of behaviours.

Family Groups

Adult males and females live separately in differently structured societies.

The basic family unit, known as a breeding herd, is a group of related females consisting of a mother and young with her grown daughters and their offspring. The activity of the group and their movements are set by the ‘matriarch’, recognizable as the largest cow in the herd. She normally walks at the front of the herd, with another large female taking up the rear. If disturbed, the elephants will gather around the matriarch and follow her lead.

Herds can range from 2 to 24 animals but when the number of elephants in a group exceeds around 10, it tends to split into two. The two families will continue to associate closely, spending between 35 to 70% of their time together.

Before young cows have their own calves they will take care of other animals in the herd. Known as “allmothers” they will rush to protect or assist any calf in trouble. Related cows will also suckle one another’s calves.

Calves commonly play with one another. Play activities appear to help them gain experience with objects, develop locomotive skills and assess the abilities of other calves.

Solitary Bulls

From 12-15 years of age up to 20, young bulls will spend over 50% of their time away from the family unit, finally leaving entirely.

Despite their solitary nature bulls also have a complex form of social organization. After becoming independent they may walk alone or form small temporary bachelor groups of 2 – 14 animals.

Bulls wander more widely than cows and, during periods of musth, will venture away from their home range in search of mating opportunities.

Very old bulls will often be found far away from the main herds, in marshy areas. As their last tooth wear’s down, they need to be close to soft vegetation which requires minimal chewing.


Elephants communicate through gestures, touch, smell and sounds.

When encountering another individual, a kind of ‘greeting ceremony’ takes place where one animal inserts the tip of its trunk in the other’s mouth.

Elephants use their trunks, ears and movements of the head to indicate aggression.

Vocally, elephants are able to rumble, bellow, growl and trumpet. Most rumbling noises are below the frequency range of human hearing and are thought to travel several kilometres. This means elephants can tell where other animals are and can take steps to join, or avoid, one other. Growls tend to be used in greetings or as an expression or anger. Bellows indicate fear. Trumpeting can be used as an alarm, within threat displays or simply to express anger or excitement.

Aggressive Behaviour

Elephants are usually peaceful animals. Females may, however, be aggressive when young calves are present and bulls can be exceptionally aggressive during musth. All elephants may become aggressive when sick, injured or harassed.

Elephants react to threats or challenges in three different ways. Dominance or threat displays are designed to demonstrate the superior strength and social position of the individual. They may look towards the threat, spreading their ears out. ‘Standing tall’, they raise their head and tusks high. Head-shaking and trunk-swishing can also be seen.

Elephants may run at the threat in a demonstration or real charge. Most charges are mock charges which are broken off before the target is reached. However if an attack is followed through, an elephant is quite capable of killing another elephant, other animals (including humans) or wrecking cars.

Defensive or submissive actions highlight an elephant’s fear or indecision. They include avoidance, agitated curling trunk movements, throwing of dust, foot-swinging and exaggerated feeding behaviour (loudly breaking off branches, pulling up grass etc).


If the threat persists, elephants can get involved in very aggressive fights. Wounds can be fatal or may become infected, leading to death.

This punctured skull was found in the Shangoni section in the north of Kruger National Park. Judging by the angle of entry of the tusk, the victim must have been down on his knees in front of his attacker.

The force of the impact between these two young bulls caused one of their tusks to be broken (the circles show pieces of ivory flying through the air)

Mr. Rudi Sippel, a park employee, witnessed a fatal elephant encounter along the Olifants River in KNP:

“An older bull must have lost the fight and was attempting to flee from the younger conqueror. The latter was stabbing him from behind. The older bull protected his vulnerable flanks by turning his rear towards the younger bull.

Exhausted, he could no longer manage this and the younger bull succeeded in stabbing him in the neck. When the tusk broke through the skin it sounded like a gunshot and the older bull bellowed in agony. The wounded bull went down on his knees and was repeatedly stabbed in the neck and ribcage before he collapsed. The younger bull walked some distance away, then came back to turn the stricken bull over and urinate on its head.

He returned time after time to push and prod the fallen animal. Ranger Ben Pretorius mercifully shot the old bull. The shot frightened the younger bull away but he returned again that night to push the carcass around. Some of the stab wounds were found to be 50 cm deep.”