Not surprisingly, elephants eat massive amounts of food — in the case of the African elephant, as much as 660 pounds (~300 kg) in a single day. The smaller Indian elephant eats less — but still a lot for you or me — a maximum of about 330 pounds (~150 kg) — an human adult only eats about four pounds of food a day.
An African elephant can weigh as much as 16,500 pounds, making it the largest terrestrial animal.* Keeping a body that massive moving requires many football-fields-full of vegetation. It also takes huge amounts of water. Wild elephants spend most of their time either looking for food or eating it once they find it.
African elephants can drink as much as 50 gallons (~190 liters) of water in a single day. Because they drink so often and so much, in the wild they are never far from water, though they may live in a variety of habitats, from thick jungle to open savannas.
What do elephants eat in captivity? Their keepers (such as the mahout shown at right, feeding his elephant) may give them cabbage, lettuce, sugar cane, apples, and bananas, as well as other fruits and vegetables. But hay is the mainstay of a captive elephant's diet And on a daily basis, elephants eat much less than the maximum amounts mentioned above. For example, according to the website of the National Zoo in Washington, Indian elephants eat only "125 pounds of hay, ten pounds of herbivore pellets, ten pounds of vegetables and fruits, and a few leafy branches."
On one winter visit to the Atlanta Zoo, the author even saw Indian elephants eating Christmas trees! They just put their feet on the trunk, ripped the branches off and ate them whole.
Elephants use their trunks to bring food to their mouths, ripping up grass from the ground or pulling leaves from trees. They also use their trunks to drink. They do this by sucking water part way up their trunks and then squirting it into their mouths.
Under natural conditions, elephants eat mostly grass, tree leaves, flowers, wild fruits, twigs, shrubs, bamboo, and bananas. Their main food is grass when it's available, along with some leaves.
But if the weather turns dry and grass dies back, they will eat almost any kind of vegetation they can find. They will knock down trees to eat their foliage. They will even turn to bark and the woody parts of plants.
Also elephants use their tusks to dig for roots. Much of this coarse food passes through their system without being thoroughly digested. They also use their tusks to dig for water, making it available not only to themselves, but also to other types of animals.
Of course, female elephants eat even more when they're pregnant — and they are pregnant for a long, long time — longer than any other terrestrial animal. The Indian elephant gestation period usually lasts a little over 21 months (~646 days), while African elephant gestation usually lasts even longer — around 22 months (Nowak 1999), nearly two years. That's a lot of time for extra snacks!
Tipping in at 5,500 to 13,000 pounds (~2,500–5,900 kg), the Indian elephant loves sugar cane and other crops so much that it has become an agricultural pest, raiding and ruining gardens and rice paddies. As people continue to cultivate more and more land that once was elephant habitat, conflicts between farmers and elephants are bound to increase.
Baby elephant eating|
As you might expect, eating so much food has an impact on elephant teeth. When elephants eat, they grind their massive back teeth together. Over time this action wears down the tooth enamel. But unlike most other animals, for them, it's not a problem. Throughout their lives, elephants grow new teeth, which push forward from the back of their mouths, replacing the old, worn-out ones, which are pushed out at the front, usually in pieces. Beats going to the dentist!
* That is, about 7,500 kg. However, the normal weight range for an African elephant is less, 9,000–14,000 pounds (~4,100–6,350 kg) for males, and 5,300–7,700 pounds (~2,400–3,500 kg) for females;