Elephants can live up to 60 years, making them the longest living mammal we find at Londolozi. As a result, many of our guests are often intrigued by how old the elephants that they see are. Ageing elephants is not a simple task, unless an individual has been seen regularly since its birth.
Experts are able to accurately determine the age of elephants using several variables such as the length of the back, shoulder height and the number and condition of the teeth.

Elephants are social animals, living in herds comprised of different ages. Although determining the exact age of an elephant is best left to scientists, there are a few ways we can determine their age approximately in the field.

Whilst these accurate estimations are best left to scientists who make use of complex algorithms using these variables, how can we assess the age of an elephant when we can’t measure its back or shoulder height, or we are not presented with an opportunity to see its teeth? There are ways, provided that we are willing to be off by a year or two either way. To estimate the approximate age of elephants for interest’s sake, here are a few tips:

The first step in determining the age of elephants is to sex them. It is important to remember that a bull elephant can grow to nearly twice the size of a fully grown cow. An 18 – 20-year-old bull could be the same size as a 40-year-old cow. In the case of calves, sexing can only be done by looking at the genitals. Males usually have a flap of skin that extends from below the tail, between the legs toward the penal sheath. In older elephants, the males usually have a more rounded forehead than the females when viewed in side profile. Bulls also have thicker tusks and their bellies slope at more of an angle than those of the cows, which are more horizontal.

The first step to determining the age of elephants is to sex them first. In this image, a cow stands side on, displaying the angular forehead. Bulls, when they are older tend to have a much more rounded forehead when viewed from the side.

Determining the ages of calves:

When elephant calves are born, they are pink behind the ears and covered with hair. Calves that have no tusks yet and are able to fit beneath the belly of their mothers are usually below one year of age, and are still entirely dependent on their mothers’ milk. Calves below two years are also not capable of using their trunks properly to drink water with yet, so if you see an elephant calf bending down to drink with its mouth – chances are it’s younger than two years. As calves grow, their tusks slowly start to show between 18 months and two years old. At around three years, a calfs’ tusks are usually about 10 cm (4 inches) beyond the lip. Due to the growth of these tusks, when these calves try to suckle from their mothers, it is uncomfortable for her and she pushes them away. As a result, elephant calves are fully weaned and feed on vegetation only at about three to four years old.

Elephants grow most rapidly between about five years until they reach about 15 years old. During this stage, they are classed as juveniles or sub-adults and start to behave differently to the younger calves. Young cows between 10 and 15 years will assist will start to care for the calves of the other cows in the herd, and can have calves of their own from about 15 years. The bulls now start to grow taller than cows of the same age, leave the herds and spend more time on their own. These young bulls will sometimes form associations with other bulls, but their tusks will be more slender than the older bulls.

When elephant calves are born, they are still pink behind the ears. This tiny calf, not even a few weeks old, will still be able to fit beneath it’s mothers belly for the first year of its life. Photograph by James Tyrrell

Determining the ages of adults:

This tends to be a lot more general than ageing calves, and usually classifying an elephant as an adult will suffice. But there are a few things that we can consider. As elephants continue to grow as adults, the changes in their bodies become are less noticeable. Their backs continue to grow longer but the shoulder height of cows doesn’t grow much more. As a result, old elephant cows tend to have longer backs and thicker tusks than younger cows. When elephant cows reach over 50 years they have sunken temples above the eyes. From about 25 years, the bulls’ foreheads start to become more rounded and, as they continue to grow they become taller and more heavy set, with thicker and longer tusks. Their temples also start to sink, but usually once they are past 30 years old.

Although this cow still has thin and short tusks, notice how he back has started to lengthen, suggesting she may be somewhere between 20 and 25 years old. Her calf could easily fit beneath her belly and is probably under a year old. Photograph by James Tyrrell

Big tusker

This is a magnificent example of an old bull elephant. His sunken temples, massive size, thickness, length and wear on his tusks suggest he could be anywhere between 45 and 50 years old.

Although all of the above are generalizations, and there will be many exceptions to the rule, this can at least be a rough guide for determining how old each elephant may be when you come across them on safari.

7 Comments

on How Old is That Elephant?

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Gillian Lacey

Elephants really are the most wonderful creatures in every sense

Judy Hayden

Every interesting. Great knowledge to have.

Lauren Coape-Arnold

Thanks, Shaun – this is super informative!!

Kathleen Reid

I will be returning to Londolozi in a couple of weeks. These images and informative article just make my return so much more exciting. I will now look at the magnificent creatures with a lot more reverence.

Mary Beth Wheeler

Excellent info, Shaun!

Humaira Paruk

Interesting info on these gentle giants! 👍

Mike Ryan

Hi Shaun Harry will be in Elephant Sands in Botswana tomorrow and will be using your technique along with the elephant encyclopaedia he dragged from you.

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