Environmentally induced variation in survival and fecundity generates demographic fluctuations that affect population growth rate. However, a general pattern of the comparative influence of variation in fecundity and juvenile survival on elephant population dynamics has not been investigated at a broad scale. We evaluated the relative importance of conception, gestation, first year survival and subsequent survivorship for controlling demographic variation by exploring the relationship between past environmental conditions determined by integrated normalized difference vegetation index (INDVI) and the shape of age distributions at 17 sites across Africa. We showed that, generally, INDVI during gestation best explained anomalies in age structure. However, in areas with low mean annual rainfall, INDVI during the first year of life was critical. The results challenge Eberhardt's paradigm for population analysis that suggests that populations respond to limited resource availability through a sequential decrease in juvenile survival, reproductive rate and adult survival. Contrastingly, elephants appear to respond first through a reduction in reproductive rate. We conclude that this discrepancy is likely due to the evolutionary significance of extremely large body size – an adaptation that increases survival rate but decreases reproductive potential. Other megaherbivores may respond similarly to resource limitation due to similarities in population dynamics. Knowing how vital rates vary with changing environmental conditions will permit better forecasts of the trajectories of megaherbivore populations.