An Elephant’s Favourite Thing – Food!
Elephants are herbivores. This means that they have a plant-based diet and eat a lot. Read on to find out how these gentle giants make more than a meal from the surrounding plants of the jungle.
Because of their size and strength, it is perhaps surprising that elephants only eat plant material once weaned from their mother’s milk. Animal species that grow up to 3 to 5 tons (and sometimes more) and eat only plants are understandably very rare in the animal kingdom, because they need such huge amounts of this low-energy foodstuff in order to maintain their body size. Unsurprisingly, such animals are called ‘megaherbivores’. Asian elephants can consume 150 – 200 kg, or about 5% of their bodyweight every day. Not only is their diet low in energy, they only digest about 40% of what they consume, due to its highly fibrous nature. This all means elephants must spend two thirds of the time eating – around 16 hours a day.
Elephants like variety, however, and an individual can eat over 100 different plant species throughout the year, including grasses, leafy plants, sedges, woody plants, bark, fruits and flowers. As generalist feeders, their diet is flexible depending on what is available for the time of year and region. They are also selective grazers and are taught by their mothers to avoid plants that are toxic or might cause digestive disturbances.
Elephants have been observed learning what to eat during different seasons. For example, they preferentially eat grasses in the wet season, when grasses have higher protein levels. This intelligent feeding pattern also helps elephants build up their nutrient reserves, protecting themselves from seasonal fluctuations.
The volume and variety of plants elephants forage for makes them sort of ‘ecological engineers’; by digging for salts, they carve hills in the landscape. They also disperse seeds and fertilise them via digestion. They defecate an average of 16-18 times per day, and they can produce over 100 kg of dung daily.
This activity creates habitats and food sources for hundreds of other species to thrive. Asian elephants are a flagship species: by protecting them, we can protect whole ecosystems. Many human activities are reducing the food sources available for elephants; climate change is expected to increase severity of heavy rains and frequency of drought.
What about Captive Elephants?
Until at least they are one-year-old, elephants usually consume only their mother’s milk. This has lots of protein and fat which the baby elephants need to grow (by 1 kg per day). As their stronger second set of teeth develops, they begin eating solids, but continue relying on milk until they are two- to four-years-old. Foods grown for elephants include pineapple plants, sugarcane and banana leaves.
The concentrations of protein, minerals and vitamins in plant matter decrease with age, so it is important to feed elephants fresh material and also to allow them to freely browse diverse natural vegetation.
Find out more:
Elephant World. (2019). Elephant Feeding. Available: https://www.elephant-world.com/elephant-feeding/. Last accessed 09.11.19.
Phang Nga Elephant Park. (2015-2019). Asian Elephant Profile. Available: https://phangngaelephantpark.com/asian-elephant-profile/. Last accessed 09.11.19.
Koirala, R.K et al. (2016). Feeding Preferences of the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) in Nepal. BMC Ecology. 16 (54).
Sukumar, R. (1993). Nutrition and Foraging. In: Eltringham, S.K et al The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management. Cambridge: Cambridge Studies in Applied Ecology & Resource Management) (Cambridge Studies in Applied Ecology and Resource Management. p82-83.