The African savannah elephant is the largest land mammal in the world. A mature bull elephant may stand up to 13 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 14,000 pounds. The most noticeable distinction between African savannah and forest elephants is size: The savannah is larger and has bigger and more curved tusks. Asian elephants have much smaller ears than both African species and usually, only the male Asian elephant sports tusks.

African savannah elephants have large home ranges, spanning hundreds of square miles. As they move, they push over trees to get to their branches and roots, helping maintain the grasslands, and they use their tusks and trunks to dig for water, creating pools that many other animals need to survive. These elephants are important dispersers of seeds through their consumption of fruit.

In folklore, elephants are known for not forgetting. For the African savannah elephant, memory is a tool for surviving challenges that may come intermittently over decades. Long-term memory tends to be vested in the older females, called matriarchs, without which the herd could die of starvation or dehydration. During the drought of 1993 in Tanzania, elephant matriarchs that remembered a similar drought 35 years before led their herds beyond the borders of Tarangire National Park in search of food and water. Groups with matriarchs that were not old enough to remember the previous drought suffered a 63 percent mortality of their calves that year. Unfortunately, these large females are the most attractive targets for ivory poachers. The animals tend to have the largest tusks, and they may be easier to find than the males.

Habitat loss and poaching are the biggest concerns for the survival of elephants. As the human footprint has grown in Africa, elephant habitats have been converted to farmland, deforested by industrial logging and mining, and otherwise developed by roads and settlements. Poachers kill elephants for their ivory and meat, and farmers sometimes kill them to protect their crops, which elephants often raid. The IUCN lists African savannah elephant populations as Vulnerable.

WCS works throughout much of the elephant's remaining habitat to monitor and manage populations and find novel approaches to reduce human-elephant conflict. One way to decrease elephant raids on human crops is to help farmers devise methods of keeping elephants away. Such examples include using chili pepper smoke or chili pepper spray blasted from guns, which serves as a noxious airborne deterrent. WCS supports the Elephant Pepper Development Trust, a program that sells hot sauce grown from alternative pepper crops to aid local farmers and elephant protection efforts.

WCS has been supporting elephant studies in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park—one of the best parks in Africa to see large herds of calm elephants. Our main goals there are to protect migration routes and dispersal areas beyond the park's relatively safe boundaries and to work with local Maasai and tourism operators to accomplish this.

Working with local governments to curtail poaching, WCS undertook a fundraising effort to support game wardens in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The wardens suffered attacks by armed militias who were poaching elephants in the park. WCS also sounded the alarm when poachers with automatic rifles killed 2,000 savannah elephants in Chad’s Zakouma National Park. WCS subsequently established a fund to help save the park’s surviving elephants, numbering fewer than 1,000. A WCS pilot and light aircraft that are based in Zakouma continually provide information to Chad’s park service about poaching activities and elephant herd locations.