They bend acacia branches with their trunks and chew on the leaves. They dig for underground water with scythe-shaped tusks. They mourn their dead, celebrate births and have profound emotional lives.
You know who we’re talking about: elephants!
African elephants are tremendously exciting sights for wildlife lovers. On a Thomson safari, you’ll see them in their natural habitat: no gated enclosures, no fences. They’re at home in Tanzania.
No safari is complete without them.
1. They’re Brainiacs
With the biggest brains in the animal kingdom (save sperm whales), it’s no surprise that elephants are highly intelligent and have long memories. They have no problem recalling distant watering holes, food sources, other elephants and human faces, even after years have passed.
On safari, you can visit one of these spots that elephants have returned to year after year. Just ask to opt into the afternoon hike to the nearby elephant cave and waterfall when you visit the lush eco-lodge Gibb’s Farm. You’ll walk from the resort grounds to the jungled Ngorongoro hillside and eventually encounter a system of caves carved into a clay cliffside.
Why are they called elephant caves? For centuries, pregnant elephant matriarchs have ventured here to dig and ingest the calcium-rich soil, which supports healthy baby development. Genius!
2. Their Trunks Have 40,000 Muscles
Forty thousand. In their trunks. That’s more than 66 times the number of muscles in a human body.
3. That Trunk is Nature’s Multitool
Elephant trunks are natural wonders. Without a single bone, they’re strong enough to uproot trees and delicate enough to pluck fruit from branches. That’s thanks to two ultra-precise “fingers” in its tip.
Seeing these dexterous tools in person is extremely memorable. They curl, twist and bend effortlessly. Elephants use them as dinner forks, snorkels and water storage. And that’s just the basics!
Elephant are even known to wrap their trunks around the trunks of younger relatives, as a form of greeting or as comfort in times of stress.
Witnessing this simple, incredible moment on safari is a powerful reminder of our shared connection to the planet. It’s a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moment few travelers forget.
And the sound of an elephant’s bellow? LOUD. It can reach a volume of 110 decibels (as loud as a car horn) and be heard for miles.
Contrary to popular belief, elephants don’t drink through their trunk–that’d be like a human drinking through their nose! Rather, elephants suction water through their trunk and splash it into their mouth as needed.
4. They’re Highly Sensitive, Empathetic Creatures
An elephant’s capacity for care is rare in the animal world. See them eye-to-eye through the pop-top roof of Thomson’s Land Rovers, and you might witness their compassion firsthand.
When a baby elephant cries, members of the herd soothe and caress the baby with their trunks.
Elephants remove spears and veterinary darts attached to other elephants.
When a baby is born, the herd celebrates with a ceremony of trumpeting and touching.
A threatened herd bunches together to protect the young.
And when an elephant dies, the herd mourns by gently touching the skull of the deceased with their trunks. They are known to pause for several minutes of silence in the spot where their loved one died. They’ll do this for several years, always returning to the spot to pay their respects.
5. They’re Ecological Engineers
Africa’s ecosystems depend on elephants. You wouldn’t have a Serengeti without them.
One, elephants build highways. As they tromp through dense forests, they clobber trees and flatten bushes, creating pathways that other animals can use.
Two, they’re foresters. Elephant dung carries thousands of seedlings that grow wherever they do their business. Some seeds can only germinate once they’ve traveled through an elephant’s digestive tract.
Even the simplest footprint left by an elephant can become a marvelous mini ecosystem. When these prints fill with rain, they provide a home for tadpoles and other small organisms.
6. Elephants Wear Sunscreen, Bug Repellent and Moisturizer
If you spot elephants bathing in the rich mud of Tarangire National Park’s Silale Swamp, rest assured: it’s not a spa treatment! Those elephants are merely applying sunscreen. And bug repellent. And moisturizer.
Fine, maybe it’s a little bit like a spa treatment–mud is the perfect 3-in-1 for their sensitive skin!
7. Matriarchs Runs the Herd
Huge elephant herds roam practically every plain and forest in Tanzania. At the head of every single one is a wise, elderly grandmother.
Elephant society is matriarchal, meaning that a female is always in charge. She finds water and food for the family, raises the young and passes survival knowledge onto the next generation of females.
Visit elephant-dense Tarangire National Park on our Founders’, Ultimate or Wildlife safaris, and your guide will help you identify the matriarch easily. She’s the largest, oldest female elephant, and she’ll be at the front of every herd parading by your Land Rover.
8. An Elephant Molar is the Size of a Brick
And their tusks are actually huge incisor teeth made of ivory. They’re beautiful–but unfortunately, they’re also prime targets for poachers.
Tanzania’s elephant population dropped by 60% between 2009 and 2014 due to poaching and retaliatory human attacks. This has contributed to the African elephant’s endangered status.
But it’s not all bad news. Our partners at the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) work with conservationists in Tanzania to thwart poachers at every turn. Thanks to their efforts, elephant populations in Tanzania have risen from 43,000 in 2014 to 60,000 in 2021.
That’s why we partner with AWF. They work tirelessly to protect Tanzania’s vulnerable wildlife, lands and communities.
We like to think it’s a labor of love.