What Do Elephants Eat? Are Elephants Herbivores or Omnivores? Elephant Diet

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Animals | February 14, 2024

Elephant sitting at a restaurant table with a waiter bringing food with the question, what do elephants eat, do elephants eat meat, do elephants eat peanuts, or are elephants herbivores or omnivores, and what is the elephant diet?

Have you ever asked yourself, what do elephants eat? Are they herbivores?

If you’re wondering if Elephants are herbivores, the answer is yes. Herbivores are an animal that has adapted to exclusively eating plant material.

Herbivores create an important link within the food chain, consuming plants for their carbohydrates and digesting their seeds, spreading them around, while also being eaten by the carnivores.

Having the ability to exclusively survive on plant matter, herbivores are termed the primary consumers in the food chain.1

So, if you’ve ever asked yourself what do elephants eat… the answer is plants. But, what kind of plants?

This complete guide explains the dietary preferences for elephants, and includes some really awesome elephant facts and other elephant info, including how many elephants are left in the world.

Elephant

(Elephantidae)

An image of two elephants eating green grass in an oval frame on green background.
  • Native Area: Africa and Asia
  • Classification: Mammalia
  • Primary Diet: Grasses, leaves, shrubs, fruits and roots

Herbivore Lore

Plant diversity and distribution are frequently driven by herbivores, and will often spur an increase in plant competitiveness. Herbivores typically have physical features allowing them to better eat plant matter.

In the instance of elephants, this is exhibited in extremely large flat teeth which allows them to tear and mulch bark, while their wide molars allow them to break down leaves and plant matter.

Elephants are non-ruminant herbivores, meaning their food is fermented as it digests through the stomach.10 Herbivores can be classified even further into sub-groups including frugivores, which eat mainly fruit, nectarivores, which feed upon nectar, and folivores which specifically eat leaves.

The elephant is considered a mammalian folivore, subsisting mostly on leaves. Due to the makeup of mature leaves, containing hard-to-digest cellulose, and therefore providing less energy, folivores will typically have slow metabolisms and longer digestive tracts.2

Do Elephants Eat Meat? Are Elephants Herbivores?

If you’re wondering “Do elephants eat meat?” the answer is no. They’re simply not designed for the consumption of flesh.

While elephants have been known to kill other animals, mostly in self-defense or out of aggression and frustration due to mating seasons.

With that being said, there have been one or two recorded documents of elephants eating people, typically out of rage or frustration. If anything, this is the exception that proves the rule: elephants are herbivores.

Elephant Diet (Elephant Food): What Do Elephants Eat

The elephant diet (elephant food) is relegated by the fact that they’re herbivorous animals. What do elephants eat is almost exclusively twigs, bark, flowers, roots, and fruit.

Image shows that the Elephant is eating grass.

(Image: numairs16)

They require a lot of calories to sustain their body mass. If an elephant is near anything green, you bet it will try to eat it.

To get specific, an elephant’s diet differs depending on both its species and geographic location.

The African bush elephant, or the Savannah elephant, occupies 37 African countries, mostly in the sub-Saharan. These elephants primarily live in forests, grasslands, farmlands, and wetlands.

They have even been known to scale mountains in order to find food. Because of the wide variety of habitats they occupy, their diet is extremely diverse.3

The African bush elephant has been known to rip bark right off the trees using its flat teeth, making tree bark a major addition to its diet. They use their tusks to dig into the soil for roots as well as to consume the soil itself in search of salt and minerals like potassium.

The African forest elephant is similar to the African bush elephant, but only recently were they determined to be two different species.11  African forest elephants are smaller and more squat, they also have differently shaped bone structures.

That being said, as they inhabit much of the same region, their diet is nearly identical to that of the African bush elephant, consisting of leaves, grass, bark, and roots.

The Asian elephants are the third species.12 They live in 13 different countries on the Asian continent, mostly in warmer climates.

They inhabit grasslands and areas dense with forests and their diets are a reflection of their location. They ingest plenty of grass, bamboo, leaves, and tree bark and get into the local crops of rice and sugar cane.

The answer to “What do Asian elephants eat?” and “What do African elephants eat?” is the same for both; all the plants, leaves, barks, roots, and twigs in their path.

Do Elephants Eat Peanuts? What Do Elephants Eat?

The question “Do elephants eat peanuts” has surely arisen from their regretful use in circuses. Peanuts are a staple snack at the zoo, carnival, and circus, and have been commonly associated with the elephant for some time.

Beyond that, cartoons have adopted the image, getting people to laugh as the elephant sneaks its long trunk into a bag of peanuts to vacuum them back into its mouth. This likely has had a negative connotation between the captivity of elephants and its acceptance amongst society.

This common practice to sell peanuts for people to feed to the elephants began as a form of entertainment and led to the concept that they also ate them in the wild. If an elephant were to subsist on peanuts alone, it would require roughly 42’000 peanuts, each day.

So to answer the question, yes, elephants eat peanuts in the same way they would eat anything that got in their path, but no, they don’t eat them in the wild. What do elephants eat, certainly not peanuts.

How Much Do Elephants Eat? (What Do Elephants Eat)

How much do elephants eat? It’s actually a staggering amount. An elephant will consume up to 150kg of plant matter a day, that’s roughly 1/26 of its average body weight, which is considerably more than humans.

Image shows that the Elephant is eating a lot of grass.

(Image: nbaction17)

Elephants in the wild will spend up to 60% of their time awake foraging for food. “how do elephants eat” you might ask, and the answer is that they’re well designed for reaching upwards for their food.

It builds their neck, head, and shoulder muscle as well as increases social function, giving the space for elephants to work together for their meals.

An adult elephant requires up to 70’000 calories, which may seem like a lot but comes extremely short of the blue whale, which requires up to 1.5 million calories per day. This is why they spend so much time foraging, their caloric requirements are massive compared to humans.

Elephants are capable of, in a single motion, reaching for their food, placing it in their mouth, and reaching for another bite without even slowing down. This is due to feeding efficiency, as they spend so much time per day eating it has to be done without wasted motion.

Through their sheer size, an elephant modifies the environment around them. As they graze and browse through the forests they create pathways and gaps through the forest, opening them up and allowing for a variety of plant species to inhabit the newly formed open areas.

Elephants are considered a keystone species,1 playing a valuable and irreplaceable role in the ecosystems they inhabit.

How Many Elephants Are Left in the World?

There’s a sad answer to how many elephants are left in the world; 90% fewer than had been in centuries past. The depopulation is due to a number of factors.

Due to their massive size and their coveted ivory, elephants have become a prime target for poaching.13

Image shows a group of Elephant near the lake.

(Image: cocoparisienne18)

Large animals are typically at the highest risk, as they’re easier to spot, therefore easier to kill. There are only 450,000 elephants left in the world,5 a small fraction of how many there were.

The two species of African elephant compose the majority of the remaining elephants in the world, making up 415,000 elephants of the 450’000 that are left. The remaining amount is composed of the Asian elephant and is considered ‘endangered’,14 one step below ‘critically endangered’.6

To get a better understanding of elephants’ endangered status it’s important to also focus on the trend of their survival, poaching, and birth rates composing a fuller picture of the direction they’re heading. More than 40’000 endangered species and a possible 50 animals which will be extinct by 2050, it’s our job to be the stewards of these animals.

The population of African elephants has shrunk by 98%, going from 25 million in the year 1500 to 10 million in 1900, and eventually down to 1.3 million as recorded in 1979.

Related Reading: Endangered Animals Quiz: Test Your Knowledge And Learn New Facts

As the decades rolled by, the population of elephants continued to decline. By the mid-1990 the population of elephants had fallen under 300’000.

That means that over the course of roughly 15 years, an astonishing 1 million elephants had perished.

To determine the trend that elephants are following researchers won’t just survey the number of live elephants they find, they’ll also count the carcasses. They call this the carcass ratio which is given as a percent of the overall population.

Given this information, researchers have determined the carcass ratio across Africa was 11.9%.7 In other words, for every 100 live elephants you find, there were 12 found dead.

The concerning news is that a carcass ratio higher than 8% will typically indicate that a population is in decline, as this rate is greater than the replacement rate.

Even more concerning is that in some countries the carcass rate was alarmingly high: in Mozambique, it hit 30% and in Cameroon, it hit a staggering 83%. Over the following decades, conservation efforts across some countries managed to restore populations to over 470,000 in 2008. Sadly, increased poaching rates over the past decade have sent numbers back into decline.

When it comes to the Asian elephant there are fewer surveys done. The IUCN estimates the overall population of Asian elephants has halved in the past century, with 100,000 elephants in the early 1900s, a number which has fallen to 40,000 Today.

Image shows a big Elephant in a grassy area.

(Image: tomtom416719)

In India the population of Asian elephants has been increasing, rising by 11,000 elephants from 1980 to 2017.

Poaching is the predominant reason for the elephants’ steep decline, and as India has made an example, protecting these creatures is possible. It’s our job to preserve this keystone species, and if you’re interested in sponsoring an animal then look no further.

Related Reading: Sponsor an Animal: Top 10 Ways To Adopt a Wild Animal

Facts About Elephant

Being one of the world’s most popular animals it’s no surprise there are lots of interesting facts about elephants.

Elephants’ trunk isn’t just useful for stripping leaves from the trees or grabbing hats off the heads of tourists, they use their trunks to drink. You may have wondered how do elephants drink water, as some people have the misconception that they use their trunks like a straw, much like if we stuck our noses into a bowl of water.

The reality is that it’s closer to dipping a straw into water, pinching the top to hold the water inside, then pouring it into your mouth. Not needing to lean down on their knees, the elephant simply pulls water into their trunks and then deposits it into their mouth.

“How much does an elephant weigh” you might wonder. Well, did you know that the elephant is the largest land mammal in the world? The African bush elephant can grow to be 15 feet tall at the shoulder, nearly 20 feet in length, and weigh over 10’000 pounds!

You can answer the question “how heavy is an elephant?” by comparing it with an oversized truck such as the Nisan Titan or a Ford F350, which both weigh roughly 12’000 pounds. The elephant will drink over 400 pounds of water a day, a drop in the bucket to their overall weight.

The elephants’ intelligence, including their memory, has been a hot topic of discussion among animal biologists. The phrase “an elephant never forgets” is thrown around from time to time, but the fact is that elephants do forget from time to time.

Though, compared to other animals, their memory ranks extremely high on the list of animals. Female African elephants often lead the herds, these matriarchs utilize their strong memory to recall friends, enemies, as well as locations.

They will return to past watering holes and locations they’ve found, and since they can live up to 60 years on average, that’s a lot of watering holes. Research has even concluded that African elephants showed a dislike to the sight or smell of distinct clothing which was found to resemble what was worn by the Maasai tribesmen who would often throw spears at them to prove their manhood.

Another interesting fact is that elephants don’t only communicate through sound, they also communicate through seismic vibration. Researchers have found that walking and vocalizing create unique seismic signatures, and the larger the animal, the further that signature travels. It’s been found that elephants are even able to distinguish alarm calls made through seismic signals made by outside groups of elephants.

Findings suggest that walking and vocalizing create their own seismic signatures and that the forces generated by the elephant calls were comparable to that created by fast-walking elephants. This noise generates a sub-sonic rumble typically in the range of below 20hz,15 sounds barely detectable by the human ear.

Deploying multiple geophones may end up being another viable source for stopping poaching, to find the direction of threatened herds of elephants.8

Within the Indian culture, the elephant takes a center stand. In the Bharata history of ancient times, we find depictions of elephants, which were believed to bring good luck and prosperity.

The elephant was even worshiped as Lord Ganesha. The Indian culture believes the elephant has a sacred connection to divinity and in ancient times the elephant was treated as if it were family.

Elephant idols decorate many entrances to ancient temples, and even today the Hindu and Buddhist homes revere the elephant with idols and iconography. Elephant motifs on textiles and saris were used since ancient times.

One of the earliest depictions of elephants was found within the Bhimbetka caves, dating to over 10,000 BCE, showing animals and man coexisting.

A young and adult Elephant walking together in a grassy land.

(Image: valerieBaron20)

It’s sad to note that the elephant was also used in war, being weaponized parts of armies since ancient times. It was common to have captive elephants and rear them, whether for ceremonial purposes or in war.

These destitute animals played critical roles in several battles, especially in ancient India but also in Rome. The ancient Indian kings coveted the elephant, and some even stated that an army without an elephant is as pathetic as a forest without a lion, or a kingdom without a king.9

Having answered the question “What do elephants eat?”, and learning about the different species, their ability to communicate, and their position on the endangered species list, hopefully, you’ve gained a newfound respect for the majestic creatures.

Frequently Asked Questions About What Do Elephants Eat

Do Elephants Have Natural Predators?

Adult elephants have very few natural predators, but baby elephants are preyed upon by animals such as the hyena, crocodile, and lion. There have been records of desperate lions attempting to hunt adult elephants, though it rarely works in their favor.

What’s the Smallest Species of Elephant?

The smallest species of elephant is the Bornean Pygmy Elephant. This specialized species of this Asian elephant is found within Asia and can stand less than 5 feet high despite their small stature, these animals can still weigh up to 4000 pounds.

Why Do Elephants Have Such Large Ears?

The reason for the elephants’ oversized ears is due to the fact that they weren’t born with sweat glands. Their large ears contain a high concentration of veins that they use to keep cool and flapping their ears cools down the blood within, which is then transported through the rest of their body.


References

1Wikipedia. (2023). Herbivore. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbivore>

2Wikipedia. (2023). Folivore. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folivore>

3Mayor, D. (2022, October 21). What Do Elephants Eat? Their Diet Explained. AZ Animals. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://a-z-animals.com/blog/what-do-elephants-eat/>

4Hiscox, L. (2020, May 28). The ecological role of elephants: shaping the land and lending a hand. David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://davidshepherd.org/news/the-ecological-role-of-elephants-shaping-the-land-and-lending-a-hand/>

5Ritchie, H. (2023). The state of the world’s elephant populations. Our World in Data. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://ourworldindata.org/elephant-populations>

6World Wildlife Fund. (2023). ELEPHANT. WWF. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/elephant>

7Our World In Data. (2023). African elephant carcass ratio, 2015. Our World in Data. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/african-elephant-carcass-ratio>

8Palminteri, S. (2018, May 11). Vibrations from elephant calls and movements reflect distinct behaviors, study says. Mongabay. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://news.mongabay.com/2018/05/vibrations-from-elephant-calls-and-movements-reflect-distinct-behaviors-study-says/>

9Wikipedia. (2023, May 18). War elephant. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_elephant>

10Wikipedia. (2023, May 30). Elephant. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant>

11Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. (2023). The African Elephant. Bioweb UWLAX. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/s2007/shah_rach/>

12Smithsonians. (2023). Asian elephant. Smithsonians National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/asian-elephant>

13Wikipedia. (2023). Poaching. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poaching>

14University of Idaho. (2023). Elephants. University of Idaho. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from <https://www.lib.uidaho.edu/digital/objects/guidedreading/guidedread021.pdf>

15Wikipedia. (2023, March 23). Elephant communication. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 26, 26, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_communication>

16numairs. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/elephant-thailand-elephant-eating-1500095/>

17nbaction. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/elephant-thailand-eat-grass-4168441/>

18cocoparisienne. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/elephants-animal-elephant-herd-1092508/>

19tomtom4167. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/elephant-animal-mammal-4393034/>

20valerieBaron. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/animal-elephant-baby-341982/>