The following article offers a summary of the average lifespan of the African and Asian subspecies of elephants, as well as discussing the different factors which can have an impact on an elephant’s lifespan.
The origin of the family of all Elephants (Elephantidae) dates back to the Miocene. The first split between Elephant species happened about 6.81 Million years ago, with a result in two genera of Elephants.
These two genera include, on the one hand, two African Elephant species, and on the other hand the Asian Elephant together with the American Mastodon (Woolly Mammoth).
The Asian Elephant and the American Mastodon split into two species about 6.01 million years ago. This is very similar compared to the age of the species of African Forest – and Savannah Elephant, which split an estimated 5.51 million years ago (Roca et al. 2015).
The last mammoths beame extinct around 4,000 years ago on Wrangle Island, an island in the Chukchi Sea, located in the north-east of Russia, close to Alaska. With the extinction of the last mammoths, nowadays three Elephant species remain.
These include two species of the African Elephant (Loxodonta) and the Asian Elephant (Elephas) (Roca et al. 2015, WWFa). The African Elephant species are called the Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). The Asian Elephant species can be divided into four subspecies, the Sri-Lankan Elephant (E. m. maximus), the Sumatran Elephant (E. m. sumatranus), the Indian Elephant (E. m. indicus) and the Borneo Pygmy Elephant (E. m. borneensis) (NatGeo, Fernando et al. 2003).
Elephants can be found all over the world in Zoos and animal parks. However, it is evident that elephants in captivity have a lower life expectancy and only have a lifespan of around 2/3rds that of a wild elephant.
The reason for this is rooted in different factors, including at what age they got captured and are trained. Please continue reading to understand the life cycle of every elephant species better and to recognize the differences these animals have to go through when in captivity.
Average Elephant Lifespans
African Elephant Average Lifespan
The average lifespan of the two African Elephant species, the Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), are relatively similar. The average lifespan of a Savanna Elephant is 70 years of age compared to an average of 60 years for the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).
Although in the wild, the two Elephant species live in different environments, they share a similar life cycle. The typical habitat of the Savanna Elephant is bushland, savannah grassland as well as woodland. In contrast, the Forest Elephant can be found in dense lowland jungles (Macdonald 2010).
Both species undergo a similar life cycle, which starts with the longest gestation period of all mammals. With a gestation period of 22 months, the elephant is pregnant for a longer time than any other mammal on the planet. Within 20 minutes the young calves can stand, and after one or two days of age, they are ready to continue their hike with the rest of the herd (nabu, WWF, WWFa, WWFb).
For the first 3 months, the calves only drink their mother’s milk and start to graze after. However, calves may be weaned by their mother until the age of 4 (WWFa, WWFb). For Savanna Elephants it is known that the mother may continue nursing her calf for more than 6 years. Once the calf is independent and the mother is not nursing anymore, the mother can reproduce again. Although an elephant cow can get offspring until the age of 65, the average number of offspring throughout her life is 6 but can be as high as 12.
For Forest Elephants research found that until the age of 8, the calves only distance themselves a few meters from their mother (WWFa).
Female African Elephant Lifespan
Female African Elephants stay in their mothers herd their entire life. Between the two species, there is a difference in their life history, where female Forest Elephants seem to have a slower birth rate. Firstly, this is because females of the two different species start breeding at a different age.
The Savannah Elephant gives birth at around and age of 12. The Forest Elephants, however, have been suggested to breed at a later age, around 23 years. Secondly, the Forest Elephant cows have been found to have longer intervals between calves. The Savannah Elephant cows usually give birth to a new calf every 3-4 years, compared to every 5-6 years in Forest Elephants (Turkalo et al. 2017, nabu, WWF, WWFb).
For Savannah Elephant cows more information on their lifecycle is known, including their periodic cycles. Female Elephants undergo periodic cycles with a duration of 16 weeks, and 2-3 days of potential receiving time (WWFb). Savannah Elephant females are most fertile between 25 and 45 years of age and once the cows are older than 40, their fertility decreases until the age of about 60, when they stop reproducing.
Male African Elephant Lifespan
Male African Elephants also called bulls, spend most of their life outside of herds, roaming around with other bulls. At an age of 8-9, African Elephant bulls start leaving the herd but come back for occasional visits until the age of 14-16, when the young bulls completely leave their herd (WWFa, WWFb). By that time, the young bulls join loose groups of other males, when they will experience their first period of Musth.
Musth is a condition of heightened sexuality in Elephant bulls. The Musth starts between 15 and 20 years of age and is a signal of sexual availability and a healthy overall condition (Ananth 2000, WWF, WWFb). Musth is a periodical condition that continues until the age of about 65 years.
This condition comes with an increase in hormones that causes the bulls to express high aggressiveness. Typical behaviour includes heightened alertness, spreading of ears, roving eyeballs, tense and stiff bodies and a tendency to a more destructive and chasing attitude. Overall during these periods, the bulls experience a very strong urge to mate (Ananth 2000).
The periods of Musth start with short intervals of a few days and later in life tend to take about 3 to 4 months. In the wild, the younger bulls won’t have many chances at reproduction, but once they are at an age of 30-35 and their bodies are stronger, they will be able to successfully mate (Ananth 2000, WWFb). The bulls typically have their highest production rates at the age of 40 to 55 (WWFb).
Asian Elephant Average Lifespan
The average lifespan of an Asian Elephant is 60 years (NatGeo, WWFc). Currently, there is no information available on whether there are lifespan differences between the subspecies.
All four subspecies inhabit different environments but seem to undergo the same lifecycle. The Sumatran elephant (E. m. sumatranus) lives in Sumatra, the Sri-Lankan elephant (E. m. maximus) in Sri Lanka, the Borneo pygmy elephant (E. m. borneensis) in Borneo, and the Indian Elephant (E. m. indicus) on the mainland of Asia (NatGeo, Fernando et al. 2003).
Their natural environment includes evergreen and dry deciduous forests, scrub jungle, grasslands, and swamp. Asian Elephants can be found at an altitude of up to 3.000 meters (10.000 feet) (Macdonald 2010).
Female Asian Elephant Lifespan
The gestation period of an Asian Elephant is similar to the African Elephant with an average of 20 months (WWF, WWFc). The calves usually get weaned until the age of 3 and will additionally start eating after several months. They may stick around close to their mother until the age of 4 (WWF, WWFc).
Once the mother finished nursing, she is ready to receive new offspring. Hence, about every 3-4 years an Asian Elephant cow may get a new calf (WWF). From an age of 10-12, an Elephant cow can give birth for the first time and may continue doing so until the age of 50-55 (WWFc). The older the cow, the longer the times between calves.
Male Asian Elephant Lifespan
Male Elephants leave the herd early in their lives but are sexually most efficient at a later age.
An Asian Elephant bull leaves the heard with about 10 years of age, which is when they get sexually mature (WWF, WWFc). However, male elephants only get into Musth at the age of 15 and are in continuous competition with larger, older males. By the age of 17, the bulls reach their full body size and will start reproduction at around 20 years of age (WWF, WWFc).
Average Lifespan Of Elephants in Captivity
The average age of captive elephants is much lower compared to their wild counterparts. Wild Elephants of Africa and Asia have an average age of 60 to 70 years, depending on the species. In captivity, individuals typically do not get older than 40 (Lahdenperä 2018, NatGeo).
This causes concern since, in the wild, Elephants typically start breeding when they are around 12 years old, however, in captivity the cows are taking longer, if at all. Since the cows have a life expectancy of 40 years, it shortens their time for reproduction by more than 20 years, compared to wild individuals.
Hence, the success rate of breeding Elephants in captivity is very low, with calves experiencing high mortality rates. For example, in 1998, 11 African elephants were born in zoos. By 2003, only 3 of the 11 calves were still alive. In addition to their limited life cycle when in captivity, several other reasons influence a captive elephants’ life-expectancy.
First of all, research found that there is a difference in the mortality rate between elephants that have been taken from the wild and subsequently been trained and kept in captivity, compared to in captivity-born elephants. The research found that individuals imported from the wild have higher mortality rates (Lahdenperä 2018).
Furthermore, the research found that the capture effects are more severe and harmful to elephants that had an older age at the time of capture. The results further suggest that wild-captured elephants had the highest mortality rate in their first year of being captured, with the mortality rate decreasing in the following years.
Secondly, the high mortality rate is because these intelligent animals are suffering from chronic stress in captivity. This stress results from an extreme change in environment and natural habitat, as well as the implementation of questionable training methods.
Since long-term stress may lead to a suppressed immune system, this results in reduced fitness and eventually may lead to higher mortality (Lahdenperä 2018, Teixeira 2007). Again, the amount of stress experienced by the elephant depends on its age. Older elephants typically take a longer time to get tamed and their training and breaking process is likely to be harsher than for younger elephants (Lupien 2009).
Thirdly, increased mortality in captivity may be caused by their change in diet. This was assumed to be the cause of poorer body condition and higher mortality rates in wild African Elephants that were relocated to new areas (Pinter-Wollman 2009).
Additionally, since elephants are the largest mammals on land, they require constant exercise so that their heavy weight is not constantly pressing on joints and bones. Typically, wild Elephants hike for around 40 miles (64 km) a day. In captivity, however, elephants are constrained to a very small space, often chained or kept in very small enclosures.
Furthermore, the ground they are standing on is not soft enough for their feet, instead, the animals are frequently housed on concrete or other hard surfaces. Overall, apart from psychological consequences, this increases their chance of getting a chronic foot and joint problems, such as foot abscesses or arthritis.
Finally, Elephants are intelligent and highly social species, which causes them to experience a lot of stress and depression when kept in small groups in captivity. Typically, young elephants are captured from the wild when they are still dependent on their mother and the rest of the older females in the herd. The individuals are typically small in size and have not reached their adult body weight or height yet. This separation from their family possibly has a strong influence on the young calves (Bradshaw et al 2005).
How severe the effect of taking calves from their family and environment, and locking them up in small cages is, is difficult to determine. However, research suggests that the age of capture, as well as the capture method, have strong influences on the stress levels the individual experiences and long-term effects on behaviour, cognition, and survival (Lahdenperä 2018, Shannon et al 2013). Lahdenperä (2018) further suggests that noticeable negative effects on mortality are most prominent in the first decade in captivity and typically results in a reduction of their lifespan by several years.
Overall, research suggests that early traumatic life experiences, such as capture in the wild and questionable training methods in captivity, may have a profound effect on the individual.
Although about 1000 Asian Elephants are currently locked in zoos, safari parks, and circuses, captive populations are not self-sustaining (Clubb 2002, Sukumar 2006). For example, this means that a total of 81% of the European Asian zoo elephant population were imported from the wild, either wild-caught or transported from timber camps (Clubb 2002).
Although conservation efforts often include capturing wild populations and breeding them in captivity, this does not seem applicable for a species with a complex social structure and such long generation times as the Elephant. Captive populations of elephants have insufficient reproductive rates to maintain population sizes (Lahdenperä 2018, Leimgruber et al. 2008).
All in all, the life expectancy of an Elephant in captivity is much shorter compared to its wild counterparts. Since Elephants undergo slow life cycles while having complex relationships with their herd, they seem to do well in the wild, but it is impossible to reach sustainable populations in captivity.
Amongst other factors, their long lifecycle, social structure, and their natural behaviour are disrupted when they are kept in captivity. For an intelligent animal, such changes cause elevated stress levels, as well as physical illnesses that eventually lead to an increase in mortality, causing a reduction of their lifespan for several years.