What’s the difference between a moose and an elk?

Is it an elk? Is it a moose? If you’re in Sweden, the answer is “BOTH”! The iconic, majestic forest dweller Alces alces is known as a moose in North America (actually the sub-species Alces alces americana) and an elk in Europe. The word elk, like the Swedish word älg (pronounced /elj/), is taken from the Latin alces. To make matters even more confusing, elk in North America is used for an entirely different animal – a kind of deer, Cervus elaphus, otherwise known as a Wapiti, which looks like this.

The European elk (or moose), on the other hand, looks like this:

Photo: Lola Akinmade/imagebank.sweden.se

Elk are widely distributed throughout Sweden, from the giants inhabiting the wilderness of the mighty Sarek National Park in Lapland (hunting restrictions have meant that large bulls have been better able to survive and reproduce) down to the lower regions of this vast country, but the forests of Bergslagen are a particularly wonderful area for elk watching in Sweden. As home to the traditional royal hunting grounds, hunting pressure on the elk in this area is lower than in some other parts of Sweden, and as a result the elk population far outnumbers the human population! The area surrounding our log cabin holidays in Varmland also have high moose populations and offer very good chances to see elk in Sweden.

Photo:(showing Sarek moose): Staffan Widstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

Elk may be fairly common and widespread in Sweden, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to see, especially at close range. Elk are shy creatures, and will retreat into the cover of the deep forest at the slightest disturbance, loping off with a slow-motion gait that uncannily resembles a giraffe running on the savannah. While it is not unusual for a commuter returning from a day’s work in Stockholm to see an elk standing motionless on the edge of a field in the setting sun, similarly a hunter may wait a week in a hide in the woods and not see a single elk!

Photo: Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

During a recent visit to Sweden, the Nature Travels team had the opportunity to take part in an evening elk safari with local elk expert Marcus, who has been running elk safaris in the Bergslagen area for a number of years now and has never once returned home without a sighting. Hundreds of nights spent patrolling the forests, hills and dirt tracks of Bergslagen have given him an in-depth knowledge of the best places to find these beautiful animals, and all elk safaris now come with an “elk guarantee” – though Marcus says he still worries that one night they might all be hiding!

Photo: Håkan Vargas/imagebank.sweden.se

Due to time pressure we took the “express” version of the elk safari – a whistle-stop tour of some of the best local elk-watching spots – but nevertheless managed to see 9 elk in just over 30 minutes, including some wonderful close-up views of mother and calf and a large male with full antlers. The full safari takes a number of hours, and combines an exploration of the local forests on foot with observation from the minibus (as in Africa, vehicles can sometimes be less threatening to wild animals than a human presence on foot). Typically in recent tours it has been possible recently to see at least 30 animals in one evening, including some very close encounters indeed. The trick to getting close, says Marcus, is to crouch down in the grass until the elk bends its head to graze, then creep slowly forward. As the animal looks up, crouch down again and remain still, then creep forward again as it returns to graze. After a few minutes of patience and quiet, you can get closer than you would believe possible!

Photo: Eddie Granlund/imagebank.sweden.se

Elk safaris are available between May and September and include an atmospheric night in an authentic charcoaler hut!


As well as being home to thousands of elk, two of Sweden’s most exciting, most threatened, and most controversial predators roam the vast forests of Bergslagen – the wolf and the lynx. Reconciling the interests and opinions of conservationists, farmers, hunters, local people and politicians is never an easy task, and the presence of large predators in Sweden has always been a sensitive issue. But Sweden is tackling this question with typical foresight, compassion and practical skill. The research station at Grimsö, deep in the Bergslagen forests, works with radio tracking on local predator populations in an attempt to learn more about their movements and behaviour and develop management plans for their conservation and future survival, while at the same time working hard to maintain the trust and goodwill of those who may feel less than positive about the presence of wolves and lynx in the area. A recent initiative has been the introduction of special fencing, similar to an electric fence but with strands much closer to the ground, which has proved extremely effective in reducing livestock deaths due to lynx and wolves.

Having grown from just two individuals, the Swedish wolf population is in something of a genetic crisis. It is estimated that to keep the population genetically viable, new blood needs to be introduced at least every 15 years or so. Recently, there was great excitement when a new wolf appeared in the Dalarna area. Analysis of dung has identified this wolf as being part of the Finnish-Russian population, and it represents the first new blood for the local wolf population since the 1980s. Worryingly, there has been some conflict between this animal and local livestock populations, and its future remains uncertain, but with luck the animal may be able to breed with local wolves and provide a much-needed boost to the gene pool of the Swedish wolf population.

Since 2006, Marcus has been working together with the researchers at Grimsö to offer evenings of wolf tracking and wolf howling. To find out more about this spine-tingling adventure, see our Howling with Wolves experience.

Bergslagen is a fascinating area for wildlife watching, and the images of elk frozen in the torchlight are still fresh in our memories – we’ll make sure we plan a little more time for elk watching on our next visit!

Best regards

The Nature Travels Team

The Rovdjursföreningen (The Predator Society) in Sweden works for the interests of all large predators in Sweden: the brown bear, the wolf, the lynx, the wolverine, and, of course, humans, with a very informative website that is unfortunately only currently available in Swedish. However, for non-Swedish speakers they also have a wonderful collection of images – see http://www.de5stora.se/galleri/galleriDe5/ and click on “Öppna galleriet”. In the UK, Tooth and Claw operate on similar principles – see http://www.toothandclaw.org.uk/.


19 thoughts on “What’s the difference between a moose and an elk?

  1. Dear Naturetravels Team, I discovered you on Ralph Maughans blog with your recent post. Amazing, what a small world the internet makes. Amazing too, that I found what I needed, a source for infos about sweden in a language I can actually read :-)) on a blog in the US!
    My wife and me have a wildlife hiking holiday in Sweden on our agenda for a long time already! Keep up your excellent work and keep responding on Ralph´s blog – Wildlife conservation is a true global issue!

  2. Thank for your comment, Peter. It was very interesting to have a look at your website – your portfolio of wildlife art is wonderful!

    Anyway, I hope that you will be a regular visitor to the blog, as we have regular articles on Swedish wildlife and issues relating to conservation, culture and ecotourism. If you are interested in hiking holidays in Sweden, you may like to browse our range of hiking and trekking experiences. Also, I see from your website that you have a particular interest in wolves – you may be interested in our Howling with Wolves experience.

    We will continue to keep an eye on Ralph’s excellent blog to follow the fortunes of the wolves in Yellowstone. Thank you again for your comment and we look forward to hearing from you again.

    Best regards
    Bob from The Nature Travels Team

      1. Hej Lars.

        Thank you for your comment. I agree – I have visited the Moose Farm at Vittangi myself (during a trip to Enontekio in Finland and across the border into Sweden in summer 2011) and had a wonderful time – in fact, I think it may have been yourself who kindly showed us around! We would certainly recommend the Moose Farm as an ideal place to visit for up-close encounters with the King of the Forest!

        Best regards
        Bob from the Nature Travels Team

      2. Mr Bjork would you be kind enough to contact me privately here in northern Scotland. I am working researching a range of extinct species formerly resident in the ancient Caledonian Boreal Forest here in the central Highlands.

  3. Living in Småland you see many Moose. They often come into the garden during Autumn to eat the apples. Last year we had two adults and three young in the garden all at once! They seem to be very gentle and timid animals but they are much bigger than you might imagine!!

    1. Hi JoLin. Thank you for your comment. That’s great that you see moose in your garden. As you say, they are impressive animals, much larger than you expect, especially when seen up close. Regarding the apples in Autumn, the Swedish papers regularly run stories of moose getting accidentally drunk eating too many fermented apples (one was found up a tree last week!) – have you seen any in your garden?

  4. Oh my Moose is no Waapiti

    In Canada our elks are elks while a moose an elk is not-
    while Europe names the moose an elk, It’s not, by George, that’s rot!
    The native Cree who know the elk, call it waapiti, that’s clear-
    while in Europe they name a moose a wapiti or elk, I fear.
    Now when a caribou comes prancing by, Europeans a Reindeer see…
    but its not so bad to have a choice, on this we can agree…
    for at Christmas time for Santa’s sake, the name reindeer we all chose…
    and for the other eleven months give caribou its dues.

    Now from the top let us review, with taxonomy to tell,
    what beast it is. and what to call, and name so very well.
    Cervus canadensis is wapiti or elk, sure as rabbits can hop free!
    Alcies alces names a moose, its not elk or wapiti.
    Now caribou and Reindeer, are, the self same beasts you see-
    so Rangifer tarandus, is the who, who tows sleds for Santa C.
    I don’t know why different names, are used , neither do I care…
    as long as, wapiti, elk, moose, reindeer or caribou, stay out of my comfy chair.

    G.Boratto 2011

    1. Gary – very well said. Brought a smile to my lips and a twinkle to my eyes. Brought memories of a lively discussion around the dining table of our German hosts.

  5. I’ve actually encountered an elk in a residential area in Stockholm, it was panicking and jumping over fences and then ran of.
    A little bit scary since they are quite large.

  6. I see elk very often on my morning run, turn a corner and boom! There is three elk in front of me.. Awesome in the true sense of the word!

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