Elephants are herbivorous and will almost eat anything vegetarian ranging from leaves, bark, twigs, shrubs and bushes, fruits, roots and flowers. As large animals it is understandable that they need large quantities of food. Elephants use their muscular trunks, a very versatile appendage, for digging roots and uprooting plants, plucking leaves and breaking branches off the trees.
What do African and Asian elephants eat?
The African elephant is much larger that the Asian elephant and consequently eats a lot more than the latter. While an average African elephant will need 250 kilograms of food and drink 60 liters of water the Asian elephant will eat 150 kilograms and drink 40 liters of water. Both species will feed mostly in the early morning and in the late evenings.
The African elephant is found in all types of habitats ranging from the savannahs to marshes and deserts and even in mountains above the snow line. Because of the terrain they live in and because of their higher reach they are browsers. They eat leaves, soft shoots, woody plants, shrubs and fruits of high growing trees. They will often rip bark off trees. They will often uproot trees, a habit which can change savannah into grasslands.
The Asian elephant lives in the thorn-scrub forests of Sri Lanka, Southern India and Thailand and in the evergreen forests and are grazers. They will generally feed on grasses, low woody plants and trees. As bamboo is abundant in these regions the Asian elephant is very fond of them.
How much do elephants eat?
An interesting fact is that elephants do not have a very efficient digestive system and they digest, on an average, only forty percent of the food they eat. That makes the quantity of food they require even larger. A large male African elephant may eat as much as 350 kilograms of vegetation in a day. They also have to drink a lot of water. Elephants may spend as much as 18 hours a day foraging for food and water. Because they consume such quantities, elephants live close to water as the live to the food source. They are also very good swimmers so they often swim in search of food from one place to another.
Elephants have 26 teeth. Unlike most other mammals that first develop baby teeth that are later replaced by a set of permanent teeth elephants have cycles of tooth replacement throughout their lives and may be typically replaced six times in a lifespan. This helps them eat the tough tree barks and the roots till late into their lives. An elephant with an infected tooth cannot survive for long in the wild because it cannot eat properly, and tooth replacements help.
Impact on ecology
Elephants can travel long distances in search of food and will walk even up to 80 kilometers in a day. During the dry season they will migrate thousands of kilometers in search of food and water. These migrations can have both a positive and negative impact on ecology, mostly the former. When elephants dig for water they leave behind water holes that are used by smaller animals and birds, helping their population. When they dig for roots and uproot trees they can help transform a savannah into an oasis.
They also greatly help plant life. Because of their weak digestive system, most of the seeds they eat pass through their digestive tract. As they wander in search of food they carry these seeds over long distances propagating plant growth. Their dung also serves a food source for monkeys and dung beetles.
They can also be destructive. Over population of elephants in some areas of Africa has resulted the in destruction of plants in search of food affecting certain species of small animals and birds.
While the major threats to elephants are from poaching, destruction of habitats and their food and water resources also is a major threat both in Africa and in Asia. Because of their food and water requirements they need large tracts of land to forage unlike any other terrestrial animal. When food resources are scarce the elephants will move into areas inhabited by humans. Because of the volume of food that they need, they tend to destroy crops and plantations and destroy water sources used by people. This leads to man-animal conflicts.