The life cycle of the elephant can be categorised into 3 main periods – the baby, the adolescent and the adult elephant.
Like humans, each stage lasts for an extended period of time and very distinct developmental milestones characterise each level of maturity.
The baby stage lasts from birth until the elephant has been weaned off its mother’s milk completely. This can be anywhere between 5 and 10 years of age. Being weaned means that the calf no longer drinks milk from its mother, but is able to live only on solid vegetation. For the first 3 to 5 years, most elephant calves are totally dependant on their mothers for their nutrition, hygiene, migration and health. This period is used to teach the young one all they will need to know about the herd and their environment in order to be able to survive alone. These lessons include the proper use of their trunk for feeding, drinking and bathing. The calf is born after a gestation period of almost 2 years (22 months). The first calves of the season are born about 2 months before the first rains, meaning that vegetation is soft and lush when they start to feed on it.
The adolescent stage extends from the time that the elephant has been weaned (5 to 10 years of age) until about 17 years old. It is during this stage that the elephants reach sexual maturity. This generally occurs anywhere between 8 and 13 years of age. They do not usually begin to mate at this adolescent stage. Adolescence is the time in which young elephants begin to break away from the main herd. Young bulls, in particular, tend to form smaller pods of peers, known as ‘bachelor pods’. Females are more likely to stick to the main matriarchal herd.
Adulthood starts at about 18 years of age, and the elephant has an average life expectancy of 70 years. Although sexually mature in their early teens, elephants generally only start to mate at about 20 years and stop bearing calves at about 50. Like humans, elephant cows experience something similar to menopause. Many of the age-related illnesses also bear strong resemblances to those of humans, including cardiovascular diseases and arthritis. During adulthood, many of the bulls tend to wonder from the main herd in search of new cows with whom to mate. The female elephants will remain with the matriarchal pod, sticking together and assisting one another with nursing and caring for calves.
Elephants, like humans, enjoy clearly defined stages of their lives, each lasting for several years, even decades. Stages are characterised by structured roles and duties. These fascinating creatures continue to amaze researchers in terms of their insight and resourcefulness.
Here is a bit more on the life of elephants: Click Here