The family is at the foundation of all elephant societies, whether the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), the African savannah elephant (L. africana), or the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Differences in the typical size of the basic family unit between these species may have important consequences for the social system. Of all of the elephant species, we know the least about forest elephants. The size of their family groups appears to be the smallest of the three, but how sure are we? The size and cohesiveness of groups is hard to assess because they spend 95% of their time in the forest where they can’t be surveyed from above. Our best estimate so far comes from Andrea Turkalo's observations - she found an average group size of 2.8. We need to do more research to find out why the group size is smaller - perhaps it has something to do with the distribution of food or the number of predators.

Stable forest elephant families with as many as 7 members are not uncommon, and their structure and internal interactions closely resemble those observed in African savanna and Asian elephants (Turkalo and Payne, pers. comm. 2000).

© Melissa Groo

The core forest elephant family is often a mother and her dependent offspring, for example, the three individuals to the back right in this photograph. However, at forest clearings, other individuals are often seen in association, and at long-term study sites these are known to be relatives. The female in the left foreground in this image is a sister of the adult female at back.