What Do Elephants Eat? Their Diet Explained

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Updated: November 19, 2021
Image Credit hangingpixels/Shutterstock.com
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What Do Elephants Eat
Elephants are herbivores that eat tree bark, grasses, fruits, and leaves

A-Z-Animals.com

As the largest land mammals on the planet, elephants have similarly large diets to sustain their massive bodies on long treks through their native habitats. 

Incredibly, these herbivorous gentle giants typically graze for up to 18 hours a day, using their powerful trunks and tusks to retrieve and eat hundreds of pounds of various grasses, shrubs, fruit, and other plant material! In addition to their massive size, their digestive systems aren’t particularly efficient, so they only digest and utilize around 40% to 60% of the food they eat each day.

Today, three unique species of elephants are recognized by biologists: the African bush elephant, the African forest elephant, and the Asian elephant. Let’s explore what each species of elephants eats, as well as where they live and their morphological and dietary differences.

What Do Elephants Eat: The Full List

What do elephants eat - fruit
An elephant taking a fruit

tiverylucky/Shutterstock.com

Elephants eat foods that include:

  • Tree bark
  • Savanna grasses
  • Fruits (like mangoes and figs)
  • Roots
  • Flowers
  • Leaves
  • Soil (for salt and minerals like iron and potassium)
  • Stems and roots
  • Grasses
  • Local crops such as rice, bananas, and sugar cane

Yet, a list of what elephants eat wouldn’t be complete without analyzing what different elephant species eat. After all, Asian elephants that live in dense rainforests have very different diets than African bush elephants living in sub-Saharan Africa! Let’s examine the diet of each elephant species individually.

What Do African Bush Elephants Eat?

The African bush elephant, also commonly known as the African savannah elephant, is one of two remaining species of African elephants. 

These elephants occupy 37 different African countries, most of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Their habitats are primarily made up of grasslands, forests, wetlands, and farmland of various elevations. Many will scale mountain ranges to find food; they have even been found at altitudes of over 8,000 feet!

Because these elephants often move between various types of habitats, they have very diverse diets made up of the plants they find during their long daily grazing sessions. African bush elephants eat meals are usually made up of the following types of plant material:

  • Tree bark
  • Savanna grasses
  • Leaves
  • Fruits (like mangoes and figs)
  • Roots
  • Flowers
  • Soil (to consume its salt and other minerals like iron and potassium)

With their strong trunks and large, flat teeth, these animals are perfectly suited to ripping bark right off of trees and pulling entire branches into their mouths! They will also use their tusks and feet to dig into the ground to find underground water sources or near trees to pull up their roots and mineral-rich soil to munch on.

What do elephants eat - close up
Elephants can eat for 18 hours per day!

Teo Tarras/Shutterstock.com

What Do African Forest Elephants Eat?

The African forest elephant is quite similar to the African bush elephant; in fact, for many years, the two species were lumped together, with both being considered simply African elephants. 

However, in recent years, scientists have found that the two species have more differences than they initially thought! Namely, African forest elephants are smaller and shorter than African bush elephants and have differently shaped tusks, skulls, and skeletons.

As you might imagine, their diet is also very similar to that of the African bush elephant, being mostly made up of various kinds of leaves, branches, fruits, and tree bark. They also use their tusks to dig up roots and soil to supplement their diet with salt and other minerals found in the earth.

African forest elephants also live throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, primarily occupying countries with more densely forested areas like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Because they haven’t been studied as closely as their African bush counterparts, we don’t know as much about their behavior and diet, but this is slowly changing!

What Do Asian Elephants Eat?

Asian elephants are the third currently recognized species of elephants. They occupy 13 different countries and mostly live in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Nepal, though they are also sometimes found in parts of China, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, among others.

Because they tend to live in grasslands and heavily forested areas throughout Asia, Asian elephants commonly eat a wide range of plant material native to those areas. Specifically, Indian elephants eat a diet that includes:

  • Grasses
  • Bamboo
  • Leaves
  • Tree bark
  • Stems and roots
  • Local crops such as rice, bananas, and sugar cane
  • Mineral-rich soil

While they look similar, these elephants are smaller than both types of African elephants, and they have smaller, less powerful tusks. Other differences include smoother skin than African elephants, rounder ears, and a longer, more tapered lower lip shape.

Although Asian elephants are a bit smaller than their African cousins, they are still known to eat over 300 pounds of food each day! They prefer eating smaller plants like grasses and twigs more than tree bark and roots, as their trunks aren’t quite as strong or flexible as those of African elephants.

Can elephants jump Indian elephant
An Asian elephant in the beautiful forest at Kanchanaburi province in Thailand.

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