Elephant nutrition is an intricate subject with countless variables and outcomes. Though it may seem overwhelming, providing an elephant with a healthy diet can be done easily by offering a diverse selection of trees, grasses and produce.

Elephant nutrition can best be understood when their natural history is taken into consideration. Because they are the largest land animal, they must eat a lot of food to keep that huge body fed. As megaherbivores, elephants have a voracious appetite and consume so much plant material that they actually have an effect on shaping their environment. They are known as “ecological engineers” or “keystone species,[1]’” terms that come from the Owen-Smith Keystone Herbivore Hypothesis. In conjunction with this, elephants are hindgut fermenters and only process about 40% of their food. On average, elephants spend 20 hours a day foraging and four hours a day sleeping. An elephant’s diet is priority number one in human care. An elephant’s diet not only provides proper nutrition to keep it healthy, it accounts for almost the entirety of its daily activity.

Ideally elephants should be eating a well-rounded diet that includes mostly browse like tree branches, grasses, and grain. Vitamins and minerals can be added as supplements to grain or incorporated into the pellet formula[2]. Produce, while excellent for training and treats, should be limited due to its high sugar content. Vegetables such as potato, onion, leafy greens and carrot are best for training rewards. Apples, bananas and oranges can be given daily but only in limited quantities and measured out according to weight and caloric intake. The best thing about using produce is there is such a wide variety to choose from! Elephants love a wide variety of foods, from sunflower seeds to whole watermelons and pumpkins, with each elephant often having a different favorite treat. These can all be incorporated into their diets to keep them interested and engaged in training sessions or other interactions.

In the wild and in human care in range countries, elephants forage for their food in environments that provide them with a variety of plant materials. So as the seasons change, so does the flora available[3]. Elephants seek out these different plants and trees throughout the year as they come into bloom or seed. In fact, if it weren’t for elephants’ uncanny knack for seed dispersal, one could argue that there wouldn’t be any new trees or grasses for any herbivores to eat! There are actually dozens of seeds that will only grow after they’ve passed through an elephant’s digestive system. Elephants also defecate a lot throughout the day, eating all sorts of different fiber contents to help move things along[4].

A well-rounded diet for all animals, not just elephants, is essential to their overall health. In elephants, poor diet is a cause for several detrimental health issues: foot health, skin health, dental health, circulatory system health and, of course, obesity. If an elephant is not getting the right amount of trace elements and vitamins, such as vitamin E, their foot pads and toenails will grow in improperly[5]. Foot health is crucial to the well-being of an elephant[6], because they are quadrupeds weighing up to five – six tons and who spend upwards of 90% of their time standing! Uneven growth in the nails and pads can create abscesses or other lesions that can render an elephant immobile. When an elephant is immobile, it creates another set of problems altogether; it must keep moving to pump that huge heart. An elephant takes its own personal skin care very seriously. They bathe, cover themselves in dust, scratch on trees and wallow in mud on a daily basis. This helps with exfoliation and also protects them from the sun and insects. When diet becomes compromised, the skin can suffer and cause epidermal abscesses. This becomes an issue because an elephant’s skin is so thick in some places that it takes a very long time to heal. In some cases, that can be years.

An elephant goes through six sets of teeth in its lifetime; each successive set of teeth lasts longer than the previous set. The last set of teeth is the hardest and lasts the longest. Tooth wear is natural and should be encouraged by providing good strong tree branches. These harder varieties of browse also help keep the molars clean and help to work them loose when new teeth are emerging.

It may seem strange to think that such a large animal could be obese, but it does indeed happen. When you spend your entire life on four huge feet, excess weight can have many negative implications. An obese elephant is highly predisposed to suffering from arthritis and chronic foot issues. Over feeding of rich food, excessive treats or inactivity can all exacerbate these problems[7]. Again, anything that can make an elephant immobile is bad news. A healthy diet and regular exercise are essential to responsible elephant care.

Speaking of exercise, even the best of diets cannot be fully relied upon if there is not also adequate exercise in the elephant’s daily routine. Elephants are by nature migratory animals, so walking up to 10 miles a day in search of food and water is not unheard of. It is tricky to emulate such conditions in captivity, but facilities in range countries have an advantage: The elephants can be taken out daily by their mahouts on hikes, to forage in the bush or give rides. Walking is by far the best exercise for an elephant[8].

As one can see, the subject of elephant nutrition is indeed an intricate one. There are countless variables and outcomes, making it a complex area of study. In fact, there are elephant veterinarians who specialize only in nutrition. Despite its seeming overwhelming, providing an elephant with a healthy diet can be done easily by offering a diverse selection of trees, grasses and produce—after all, variety is the spice of life!

*The views and expressed opinions in this article are those by Asian Elephant Support, and are not necessarily those of TripAdvisor, Inc.  Any cited research is sourced by Asian Elephant Support and has not been necessarily verified or independently evaluated by TripAdvisor, Inc.    

Resources

[1] Owen-Smith, “Pleistocene Extinctions: The Pivotal Role of Megaherbivores,” Paleobiology Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer, 1987), pp. 351-362

[2] Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 212

[3] Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 216

[4] Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 212

[5] Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 217

[7] Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 210

[8] Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 233

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