This Bull Elephant Has Reached A Ripe Old Age. Photo:Primrose Girl/Flickr

How Long Do Elephants Live? Photo:Primrose Girl/Flickr

How long do elephants live?

The international wildlife photographer known as Primrose Girl told us this story about the elephant pictured at left, which she photographed in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park:

“This wonderful old bull elephant with these incredible tusks is approximately 60 years old. Imagine all he’s seen in his long life in the Mara. He is now on his last set of molars and soon won’t be able to feed, so like all elephants of his age he will go north to the Musiara Marshes where the grass is easier to eat, and will spend his final days there. It was a real privilege to see him.”

The simplest–though slightly misleading–answer to “how long do elephants live?” is, somewhere between 60 and 70 years. But that’s only how long they can live if everything goes well for them. Like people, elephants die at all different ages, and most don’t make it to the end of their species’ maximum lifespan.

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Guleph, in Ontario, Canada, examined records kept on hundreds of wild and captive Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) elephants that died between 1960 and 2005. They found that about one third of female African elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park lived past the age of 50, with a median age of 56 years for elephants that died of natural causes. (The “median” means that half the elephants died before 56, and half died after 56.) The researchers added that, because people frequently kill elephants from the Amboseli population, the overall median lifespan for the park’s female elephants, regardless of how they died was 36 years–20 years shorter than it would have been under completely natural (free from human interference) conditions.

The answer to “how long do elephants live?” also may depend somewhat on which of the two elephant species you’re talking about. The scientists found that Asian elephants used for working in the timber industry in the nation of Myanmar (also called Burma) reached a median age of 41 years. (The group had no statistics for wild Asian elephants.)

And, “how long do elephants live?” had a disturbing (and controversial) answer when the researchers looked a elephants kept in zoos. The study found that zoo elephants of both species tended to die at much younger ages than either wild African elephants or working Asian elephants. The researchers said the median lifespan for elephants that died in European zoos between 1960 and 2005 was only 17 years for the African species and 19 years for the Asian animals. Stress, lack of exercise and obesity were thought to be largely responsible for the shorter lifespan of the zoo elephants.

But zoo advocates counter that zoos do a much better job of caring for elephants than they did in the earlier decades when the first elephants in the study died, and that elephants currently living in zoos will have life spans approximating those living in more natural conditions. —Paul Guernsey

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