The social structure of elephants is based upon one central unit: the family. An elephant family is led by a matriarch, the eldest female in the group. The family can vary in size from 2 individuals to 45 or more and can bridge 4 generations of related elephants. Families are composed of adult females, calves, and juveniles; male elephants leave their birth family at the age of 14 to join other bulls or remain on their own. Elephant social networks are uniquely large: Families congregate in groups that can accumulate thousands of individuals. Elephant society is also very fluid. Groups change often, based on social bonds, reproductive states, or seasons.
Communication plays a central role in maintaining the intricate social network of elephants. Elephants communicate using visual and tactile displays, chemical signals such as saliva, and vocalizations. By positioning their trunks, ears, limbs, or entire bodies in particular ways, elephants are able to transmit complex emotions and messages, ranging from threatening a subordinate to displaying submissive behavior. Elephants also interact by utilizing a wide range of sounds—everything from rumbling and trumpeting to barking and roaring. Scent is used to distinguish between particular individuals, both elephant and human!
Elephants are active for 18 to 24 hours a day. While they spend the majority of this time foraging for food, they also enjoy a variety of other activities, such as water bathing, mud wallowing, and dust bathing. During the day, elephants rest while standing; at night, they lie down for a few hours to sleep.
Between 1960 and 1990, elephant populations in East Africa suffered a huge decline, as 85 to 98 percent of elephants were killed for their ivory. Despite these decimations, Tanzania and Kenya maintain a significant elephant presence. Today, there are an estimated 25,000 elephants in Kenya, though poaching continues to threaten this number.