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How long is an elephant pregnant for?

The gestation period of an animal can reveal a lot about its nature. Typically, the larger and more cognitively developed the animal, the longer its gestation period. For instance, the Virginian opossum has the shortest mammal gestation period, lasting just 12 days, as it is small and relatively undeveloped at birth. In contrast, elephants, being exceptionally large and intelligent, have the longest gestation period of any mammal, lasting 22 months, nearly two years.

At Tsavo Trust, we celebrate elephant pregnancies as they signify potential additions to our growing elephant population. Tsavo is home to some of the world’s few remaining big tuskers, so each new calf helps secure the future of this impressive sub-population. This article explores why an elephant’s gestation period is so long and answers some common questions about elephant pregnancy.

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There are around 25 big tuskers left in the world, many of which reside in Tsavo Conservation Area

Why is elephant pregnancy so long?

A long gestation period allows the baby elephant to develop as much as possible before it is faced with the dangers of the world, of which there are many. Elephants do not have the luxury to a slow start to life and have to hit the ground running, literally.

Just 20 minutes after the elephant is born, it is able to stand; within an hour, the elephant can walk; and within 2 days, it will be keeping up with the herd.

It is not just the elephant’s body that needs to develop before birth, but also their brain. Elephants have exceptional brains, very similarly structured to those of humans but with three times as many neurons. In order for this brain to develop, the gestation period needs to be very long.

Although humans are much more cognitively advanced than elephants, we have a much shorter gestation period. However, we also come out of the womb relatively undeveloped and helpless. Scientists theorize that exposure to environmental stimuli is so important for human brain development that, from an evolutionary standpoint, it is better to develop outside the womb than in it.

How many babies can an elephant have at once?

For the most part, African elephants only give birth to one calf at a time. This is because an elephant calf requires a lot of attention and feeding; therefore, having any more can put a large burden on the mother and the family group. However, around 1% of births result in twins, such as a pair of twins born in Samburu last year to the elephant Alto.

How many babies can an elephant have?

Elephants give birth approximately every four years, and considering their pregnancies last about two years, that’s quite significant.  Despite having a lifespan of 60-70 years, elephants usually have only around four or five babies in their lifetime. Nevertheless, a considerable portion of their lives is spent being pregnant.

If you would like to learn more about the life cycle of an elephant, please follow this link to a previous article.

How big is a baby elephant when it’s born?

At birth, an African elephant calf can tip the scales at nearly 90.7 kilograms (200 pounds). To put this in perspective, the average adult human weighs about 82 kilograms (180 pounds). Once the baby is born it will drink around 12 litres of milk per day, growing rapidly within the protection of its herd.

The weaning process can begin at one year of age and can still be ongoing for an elephant of ten years old. Often, the process only ends when the mother can no longer tolerate the abrasion from its offspring’s emergent tusks or when another new-born is birthed.

Elephants, are well known for their immense size and intelligence, and they also have the distinction of the longest gestation period of any mammal, lasting an incredible 22 months. This extended pregnancy allows the baby elephant to develop significantly before entering a world full of challenges. While elephants can live up to 60-70 years, they typically give birth only every four years, resulting in just four or five offspring in their lifetime. This significant investment in each calf underscores the importance of their lengthy gestation.

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