If you don’t eat meat, you will turn out scrawny. Right?
Without milk, your bones will be brittle. Because just as the commercials have told us our whole lives, you need it for the calcium!
Well if that’s the case, then why do most of the world’s biggest and strongest animals – like horses, oxen, buffaloes, gorillas, rhinos, and elephants – all thrive on a plant-based diet?
If you really need dairy for calcium, then consider that no animal – herbivore or carnivore – drinks milk from another species. No baby or kid in the animal kingdom will suck their mommy’s breast past infancy. Not even the biggest mammal, who has a rock hard femur bone that might be as tall as you are!
To put perspective as to what’s really needed in our own diet, sometimes it’s a good idea to look at what healthy animals naturally eat.
Case in point = African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana). No, they don’t eat meat.
There are two ways to answer the question as to what’s in their diet. Besides peanuts, which is yet another myth.
That plant is native to a different continent – South America – and the nuts grow under the ground in shells. Not even jungle peanuts grow in Africa.
Sure, during the days of circuses in the 19th and 20th century, an animal handler might hold out a few peanuts or sprinkle them on the ground for an elephant to eat, but that was done purely for entertainment value. And yes, they eat the shell of peanuts! Though not even in circus captivity or a zoo was that ever a primary food source.
Those nuts – technically legumes – are quite small. Think of how much energy these big animals need on a daily basis. Consuming them would be a terribly inefficient way to get the necessary calories! In fact, it would likely be impossible.
The time it would take for wild elephants to find peanuts growing under the ground and dig them up would not provide enough calories, even if they were growing in the African savanna.
Here’s the first way to answer the question as to what elephants eat and drink in the wild…
With two finger-like flaps at the end of their trunk, these herbivores are able to grab the savanna grasses, small tree branches, leaves, bark, and if they can find them in their habitat, fruits and whole coconuts are a treat. How much an adult elephant will eat per day can range anywhere from 100 to 300 kg of these foods (220 to 660 pounds). They will also drink up to 200 liters of water daily (50 gallons).
The baby elephants will drink up to 20 pints of breast milk per day from their mother. They can continue to breastfeed for up to 4 years after birth, but beyond the first 2 years, the milk is only a supplemental food source. By then, the babies will also be consuming vegetation.
Books aside, that’s about as much detail as you will get from most online sources. Not even Wikipedia gets into the nitty-gritty of what plant species they are specifically eating (1).
In their defense, it’s not an easy question to answer!
As with humans, elephant food will include a broad array of plants. What they eat can vary greatly based on their geographic region and the season.
What’s their favorite food? To answer specifically, we traveled to Botswana, Zambia, and South Africa during the height of the summer rainy season, February. That’s when everything is green and in full bloom.
In that environment, all of the plants are available for their picking. So which do they choose and are they the highest protein plants, as one may expect?
You do see them nibble on a little bit of everything, depending on what’s around. But just because they eat something, it doesn’t mean they like it.
This young lady was more preoccupied with playing with her food…
Tossing it on her head and letting it roll off, she would barely nibble at these branches of leaves. Then again, there can be legit reasons for that type of action – like getting flies and insects off the body.
Whatever the case, she clearly didn’t value it that much as a food source.
Grasses and shrubbery might not be on the top of their list, but the elephants in Botswana definitely had a favorite food…
That’s Matt, showing you a leaf from the mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane). Also spelled mophane, it goes by other names too; butterfly tree, balsam tree, and turpentine tree (2). In the regions where it grows, mopane is the elephants’ favorite food.
They like it so much, it actually has a hard time growing. In the background you see trees which look pruned, as if they are part of an orchard. They’re not… that’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s the Okavango Delta region in northern Botswana. The nearest paved road is at least 30 miles away. To reach this location, you have to fly in on a tiny prop plane from the nearest city (Maun) and land it on the dirt plains. No paved runways here!
The reason the trees look short, stubby, and pruned is because the elephants just love to gobble up their leaves. This species is suppose to grow up to 25 meters in height (80+ feet), but it’s possible to drive for days here – throughout this 500 square miles of protected land – and the tallest mopane tree you see might only be 8 or 10 meters (25 feet).
The reason it’s called the butterfly tree is the shape of the leaves (obviously) and also because each half actually “flaps” up to a closed position, just like a real butterfly does with its wings. They do this when the sun and heat are intense, in order to minimize how much moisture evaporates from them (3).
If it weren’t for the mopane’s natural defense mechanism to thwart the elephant, there might be none of these trees left in the wild!
That defense mechanism is the production of tannins. Once an animal starts eating the leaves, the tree goes into overdrive to produce lots of tannin (4). These are a bitter-tasting substance. If you’ve ever had a bad cup of tea, you’re tasting its tannin content.
An elephant can only munch on its favorite tree for a few minutes, before the tannin content in the leaves gets too high. That’s why they can’t eat all of the tree at once. If they could, they would!
The tall trees in the background are not mopanes. That short tree that looks like a bush in front of the vehicle is a typical size they reach, because they just keep getting devoured.
How’s this for irony… just like peanuts, mopane is in the legume family (Fabaceae).
We will tell you how much protein and calcium those leaves have in a moment. Before we get into the nutritional content, let’s discuss what the elephants in Kenya and Tanzania eat.
Because you will primarily find mopane in the northern parts of Botswana and South Africa. You can find it but it’s less common in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, and Angola.
During a different trip to Tanzania, we had the privilege of getting up close and personal with these majestic beauties.
Okay, maybe that particular day it was a little too close.
Though back at the tent, it was the perfect distance. Their watering hole was literally the backyard.
How’s that for a view while you eat your breakfast and dinner. But what do elephants eat for their breakfast?
Here in the Serengeti and eastern Africa, there are no mopane trees. What you see here is also summertime. Since they’re so close to the equator, the time of their summer is similar to North America. What you see above is the month of August, not the February summer that takes place in southern Africa.
They will eat it if they have to, but that dry savanna grass you see is not their preference. What is the African bush elephant’s favorite food around here?
One they absolutely love is the baobab tree (Adansonia digitata). You will instantly recognize this icon of Africa. The silhouettes of it in a savanna landscape is a little too cliché for use in paintings and photos (including our own).
It’s not found much in the southern part of the continent. Up here though, it’s common and offers unique health benefits.
To us, it’s a funny-looking tree. To an elephant, it looks like a water bottle.
That’s because its big fat trunk stores water to survive the dry season. Fully grown, its circumference is 90 feet around and inside, there will be up to 95,000 liters of water (25,000 gallons) (5).
Do elephants eat baobab trees? Yes, but only certain parts. The bark is soft enough for them to poke a hole through. Using that opening, they will begin ripping off the bark. That will allow them access to what they really want, which is the flesh inside. It’s as juicy as a watermelon.
Fortunately, the bark can regenerate. As long as the damage isn’t too bad, the baobab will survive post-feasting. Even if it has a gaping hole. With a lifespan that’s up to thousands of years, they have plenty of time to repair damage (6).
Sometimes though, the elephants are so ravenous, they go overboard and kill it. You will see many of these casualties throughout the Serengeti.
The protein content of baobab is almost zilch. They’re munching on it more for the moisture versus anything else.
So where do they get their protein for those big muscular bodies?
It comes from the leaves, grasses, and branches they eat.
Going back to their other favorite thing to feast on – the mopane leaves – we can tell you exactly how much protein they’re eating and how its content compares to your own diet.
The amounts of nutrients, minerals, and vitamins in the plant can vary based on the season. Below are the average measurements for each edible part of the mopane, and when available, the two different months reflect the high and low points for concentrations (7).
Protein: 9.2% in October to 13.9% in January
Calcium: 0.51% in January to 3.23% in September
Protein: 8.6% in October to 15.9% in January
Calcium: 0.82% in April
Protein: 19.5% in April
Calcium: 0.35% in April
Protein: 4.2% in October to 5.0% in January
Calcium: 0.07% in April
These leaves contain up to 14% protein and 3.2% calcium by weight. Surprising? Not really.
Percentage-wise, the amount of protein in the elephant’s food is low relative to the plants you eat (or should be eating).
Contrary to popular belief, many of the highest protein foods are vegan. If you were to actually eat decent-sized servings up them, you would be consuming more protein than your body could even use.
Yes, broccoli has more protein than steak.
According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, one serving of broccoli clocks in at 50 calories and has 4.2 grams of protein (8). 34% of the calories are protein.
Compare that versus beef tenderloin, even when it has been trimmed to have just 1/8″ fat. That yields 19.61 grams for 247 calories (9). 32% of the calories are protein.
For every 100 calories you eat, broccoli is providing you with 8.4 grams of protein versus the steak, which is 7.9 grams.
There are many high protein leafy greens too such as kale, spinach, bok choy, arugula, and collard greens.
Zucchini, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower are also excellent grain free and low carb plant-based sources of protein.
If you think you aren’t getting a complete amino acid profile, think again. Compare rice vs. pea vs. whey protein side by side and the results may surprise you (hint: whey is a loser for 2 of the 3 BCAAs).
Oh and calcium?
Your average cup of milk has 129 mg of that per 100 grams (10). That equates to being only 1.29% calcium content.
Many leafy greens, including kale and spinach, have a higher percentage. Those mopane leaves have up to 250% the calcium of cow milk.
The superfood of the Serengeti
The most fascinating food in their diet is the baobab. While they may not always be eating the most nutritious part of it, the fruit it produces has health benefits which even exceed the most hyped superfoods:
- 40% more antioxidants than acai.
- 6x more vitamin C than an orange.
- 2x the calcium of milk.
- Rich in B vitamins, which is why National Geographic calls it “the vitamin tree.”
- Loaded with essential minerals.
The Africans have been eating it for centuries, if not millennia. However this fruit hasn’t been available in the Western world until quite recently.
Just a decade ago, the European Union and FDA approved it for consumption. In turn, that made it available for import.
Though given that few people know about it, there’s isn’t yet much demand. There’s nowhere to buy fresh baobab fruit for sale in the United States. However you can buy the dried powder on Amazon.
Try adding a spoon to your oatmeal, smoothies, or juice. Since it has a neutral taste, you can really incorporate it into almost anything, even baking recipes.