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Elephant Lifespan: How Long Do Elephants Live?

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key point:

  • Elephants are on the IUCN Red List due to poaching, habitat destruction and climate change. The African bush elephant and the Asian elephant are endangered, while the African forest elephant is critically endangered.
  • The average lifespan of an Asian elephant is 48 years, while that of an African elephant is 60-70 years. Captive elephants have a shorter lifespan, which experts believe is due to stress from poor mental health.
  • The longest-lived elephant on record may be Indira, who lives at an elephant rehabilitation center in India. According to her veterinarian's best guess, Indira was docile and easygoing and lived into her mid-90s. Indira passed away in 2017.

"If someone wants to know what an elephant looks like," Pierre Corneille once explained, "they'll just be more like a human being."

For someone who lived in the 1600s, this was a prescient observation, because over the centuries, researchers have learned that elephants are like us in many ways. They mourn the dead, shed tears of joy, and form close family bonds.

They also had a lifespan similar to ours, and today we're studying some of the oldest known elephants.

Elephant Crash Course

Elephants are the largest land mammals currently roaming the planet – especially in Africa and Asia. As you might have guessed, tame but large herbivores need a lot of fuel, and adult elephants put down an average of 330 pounds of vegetation per day. But when you consider that elephants weigh between 5,000 and 14,000 pounds, 330 pounds of food makes sense!

Despite their size, elephants are not all smooth sailing. All three extant species are on the IUCN Red List due to poaching, climate change and habitat destruction. The African bush elephant and the Asian elephant are endangered, and the African forest elephant is critically endangered.

The easiest way to tell African elephants apart from Asian elephants is by their ears: the former have much larger ears shaped like the African continent; the former have much larger ears shaped like the African continent; the latter are smaller and shaped like the Indian subcontinent!

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They are very intelligent animals with complex emotions, feelings, compassion and self-awareness (elephants are one of the very few species that can recognize themselves in a mirror!)

how long do elephants live
Two wild African elephants interacting. Elephants are highly social animals and need companionship.

©JONATHAN PLEGER/Shutterstock.com

The Evolution and Origin of Elephants

Elephants are believed to have evolved from small rodents that lived more than 60 million years ago.

©Andy Elliott/Shutterstock.com

Elephants are believed to have evolved from small rodents that lived more than 60 million years ago. These early ancestors of modern elephants are known as proboscises, small, agile creatures that roamed the forests and grasslands of ancient Asia.

Over time, proboscises evolved to become larger and more specialized. They grow long, curved tusks for digging roots and snapping branches, and slender trunks for grasping and manipulating objects. Their teeth also evolved to be flatter and better suited for grinding tough vegetation.

By the time of the last ice age, about 2.6 million years ago, elephants had evolved into the large, majestic creatures we know today. These ancient elephants were widely distributed across much of Europe, Asia and Africa, and they are an important part of many ecosystems.

However, elephant numbers have declined dramatically over the past few thousand years.

What is the average lifespan of an elephant?

The average lifespan of an Asian elephant is 48 years. African elephants usually live to be 60 or 70 years old.

Sadly, zoo elephants have the shortest life spans. Pachyderms living in European zoos die much earlier than those living in protected game reserves in Africa and Asia, a six-year study has concluded. Captivity erodes elephants' mental health so badly that stress can lead to premature death, researchers believe.

An extensive study found that zoo-born female elephants live an average of 17 years, compared with 56 for those born in Kenya's Amboseli National Park. For Asian elephants, half of those born in zoos had died by age 19, compared with 42 for those born in the wild. In general, elephants thrive in large herds, but at the zoo, a person can only interact with 2 or 3 other elephants.

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Poaching is a huge threat

Although elephants have a relatively long lifespan compared to other wild animals, poaching is a growing problem for the pachyderm. According to reports, more than 30,000 elephants are illegally hunted for their ivory every year.

The situation is devastating and complex. Corporate encroachment and urban sprawl have destroyed traditional livelihoods in many communities, and regional wages designed to replace old ways are stagnant and inadequate.

But black market buyers of ivory are willing to pay enough to feed a poor family for a year, so the poaching continues. Addressing this issue requires a multifaceted plan that considers social, economic, and psychological factors at the micro and macro levels.

With evidence that nature is grappling with this problem, too, some scientists speculate that tuskless elephants may be climbing the evolutionary ladder. But related research is still in its early stages and no conclusions have been reached yet.

oldest known elephant

No one is sure which animal currently holds the record for the longest-lived elephant in existence, as the long-time holder, Dakshayani, died in 2019 at the age of 88. Shortly after his death, the pandemic hit and the crown bearer has yet to be named.

Raju, an Asian elephant rescued by Wildlife SOS in 2014, may be the frontrunner, based on our research. His veterinarian thought he was in his 50s. Reportedly a slave elephant, Raju wept with joy when Wildlife Rescue staff uncuffed him.

But the odds of Raju being the oldest elephant on Earth are low. A pachyderm in his 60s that managed to escape poaching is likely living somewhere in the wild.

Previous record holders for the longest-lived elephant include:

  • Lin Wang – World War II veteran and resident of Taipei Zoo, Lin Wang was born in 1917 and died in 2003 at the age of 86. For many years, he held the title of the world's longest-lived elephant.
  • Indira – Indira has lived most of her life in Sakrebailu, Karnataka, an elephant rehabilitation center in India. Meek and easy-going, Indira lived into her mid-90s—or, at least, that was her veterinarian's best guess. No one is sure of her actual age at the time of her death because she was not born in captivity. Indira passed away in 2017.
  • Shirley – Shirley was born into a toxic circus environment where the handlers abused her. Thankfully, she was eventually sold to the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo in Monroe, Louisiana, and eventually housed at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. In 1948, the world welcomed Shirley. Sadly, she passed away in 2021 at the age of 73, which is a long time for an Asian elephant!
  • Hanako – When Hanako went to Elephant Paradise in 2016, she was the oldest Asian elephant in Japan. Hanako lives at the Inokashira Park Zoo, but she has caused much controversy over the facility's treeless enclosure. In addition, they forced Hanako to live alone, which was equivalent to being locked in a confinement room for no reason.
  • Terranza – Tyranza (Ty for short), a longtime resident of the Memphis Zoo, was once the oldest living African elephant in North America. Born in 1964, Ty was orphaned at an early age. Since then, she has devoted herself to the circus and was rescued by the Memphis Zoo in 1977. Sadly, she passed away in 2020.
Lin Wang, the oldest elephant
A life-size specimen of Lin Wang at the Taipei Zoo. Lin Wang served in World War II and the Chinese Civil War. Lin became a cultural icon upon arriving in Taiwan and died as one of the world's oldest living Asian elephants.

©peellden/CC BY-SA 3.0 – License

Elephants are incredible animals. To ensure their survival, conservationists, scientists, and animal activists must work together to develop effective programs to meet the needs of elephants and humans.

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How long can an elephant live?
How long can an elephant live?

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about the author

My name is Rebecca and I have been a professional freelancer for nearly ten years. I write SEO content and graphic design. When I'm not working, I'm obsessed with cats and pet mice.

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