When you encounter an animal as enormous as an elephant, you can’t help but wonder what the elephants diet must contain. You might be surprised to find out that elephants are actually herbivores - meaning they don’t eat any other animals. Instead, they focus on eating plants. Here’s exactly what elephants eat to fuel and maintain their sizable bodies.
Wild elephants eat a wide range of plants, as they need to eat a lot to fuel their large bodies. The elephants diet primarily depends on grasses, roots, bamboo, fruit, and tree bark. In particular, elephants love to use their tusks to strip trees of their bark.
Although it was previously assumed that all three species of elephants ate the same thing, recent research shows otherwise. Asian and African elephants diets differ in one major way: Asian elephants prefer monocot plants - palms, bamboo, and grasses. In comparison, African elephants prefer to break apart tree saplings and strip them down, consuming their foliage.
The different elephants’ diets have very different impacts on their surroundings, which have been studied. African elephants can be quite destructive, as their preference for saplings can leave a barren land behind. Asian elephants have been deemed “daintier eaters,” as they leave less of an impact by leaving fewer tree scars. Instead, they clear away more palms and grass.
Elephants in captivity will likely be fed a diet that includes some of the same foods that of a wild elephant. However, they often are also fed hay. An adult elephant can eat 4-5 bales of hay each day, which is 4.5-8kg or 10-18lbs.
The elephants diet also requires water. On average, each elephant drinks about 100-200 litres or 25-50 gallons of water. In times of drought, elephants may use their tusks to drill into the ground in search of water.
Interestingly, elephants are non-ruminant herbivores. This means that they don’t belch, ruminate, or chew cud like ruminant animals do (cattle, goats, etc.) This is why they produce so much gas. They produce methane gas, and they create enough in a single day to fuel a car for 20 miles.
Elephants are huge - up to 3m high and weighing in at up to 6 tons. To fuel their bodies, they must eat a lot. This is in part due to their poor digestion - only about 44% of the food that elephants eat is actually digested. The rest finds its way out through their dung, and the elephant doesn’t benefit from those nutrients.
Asian and African elephants eat up to 150kg, or 330lbs, of food every day. With such a high intake, it’s no wonder that elephants are constantly eating. Elephants can eat for up to 18 hours a day. That’s 75% of their total day spent eating alone. Much of the rest of their day is spent sleeping - more on that here.
In order to find enough food, elephants must also have a lot of space to roam and graze. A herd of elephants is typically led by the oldest and largest matriarch. The herd is made up of female elephants, as male elephants eventually mature and leave the herd to travel alone or with a small group of other males. The matriarchs have the best advantage of finding food, as they can remember many places where they’ve found food and water previously.
This is why herds with older matriarchs have higher rates of survival. The older the matriarch, the more memories she has. In times of drought, she can remember where even the rarest food and water are. The elephants in her herd benefit from her memory, and hopefully, go on to remember where that food is when they may need it in the future.
Elephants may sometimes struggle to find appropriate food. This occurs for several reasons, with the most important being habitat loss. As the human population surges, we push further into elephant rangelands and take away the food sources normally found in the elephants diet. We also cause habitat fragmentation, in which we break apart the elephant’s natural habitat with roads, pipelines, railways, and human settlements. Paths that the elephants once took to get to food are now uncrossable. This can lead to overgrazing in the limited area where elephants are safe.
In addition to habitat issues, elephants face deadly poachers. With so many threats at play, elephants need help now more than ever. That’s why Elephant Parade sells elephant replicas and other merchandise. 20% of the net profit of all sales goes to elephant conservation. To learn more about our efforts and why we got started, read up on our story.