Genus and Species: Elephas maximus
Giant herbivores, Asian elephants can tear down huge tree limbs or pick up small objects with their muscular trunks.
Physical Description: Asian elephants are huge gray animals inhabiting Asian tropical forests. Their gray coloration conceals them in their shady habitat. Elephants' trunks, unique among living mammals, are versatile, enabling them to reach the ground, manipulate tiny objects or tear down huge tree limbs, squirt water over their backs or into their mouths, or blow dirt onto their backs during dust baths. Female Asian elephants usually lack visible tusks as do males in some populations, such as those in northeast India. Wide, padded feet enable them to walk quietly. Large, flappable ears help these huge animals cool off, although elephants often must retreat to the shade or water during the hottest part of the day.
Size: Asian elephants grow up to 21 feet long, stand up to 10 feet tall, and weigh up to 11,000 pounds. Females reach around eight and a half feet tall and weigh less than males. Despite their size, elephants are able to walk silently.
Geographic Distribution: Asian elephants live in large blocks of forest near water sources and grasslands, habitat that has been greatly reduced in the last half century. They inhabit India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Bangladesh, and southern China.
Status: The Asian elephant is listed as endangered on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Animals.
Habitat: Asian elephants inhabit a variety of tropical forest habitats from moist, evergreen lowland forest to dry semi-deciduous teak forests to cooler mountain forests up to 10,000 feet. They also frequent adjacent grasslands and farm areas. Their varied diet enables them to live in disturbed forests as long as they have plenty of space to move around and exploit different foods without coming into conflict with people.
Natural Diet: A dexterous trunk and large, rasping molars allow Asian elephants to gather and process a wide variety of vegetation, including grasses and herbs, leaves, fruit, farm crops, and bark.
Reproduction: Older and larger males—especially those in musth (condition of heightened testosterone levels) dominate the breeding, winning the acceptance of females in heat. Gestation takes 20 to 22 months, and usually only one calf is born. Female Asian elephants can usually breed by age 14 and usually give birth to one young every four years.
Life Span: In the wild, Asian elephants may live up to about 60 years but most do not live that long.
Behavior: Female and young male Asian elephants live in cohesive herds of related adults and their offspring. The matriarch, usually the oldest and largest female, sets the pace of the group's activities. Herds often join with others to form large groups called clans. Males leave herds at puberty, around their 13th year, and travel alone or in bachelor groups. Elephants wander widely in search of food. Movements vary widely depending upon food availability. Asian elephants communicate via rumbles, growls, bellows, and moans. Some of these varied, low-frequency sounds may travel a mile or more.
Past/Present/Future: Asian elephants once ranged from Iraq east through Asia south of the Himalayas, into southern China and possibly south to Java. However, centuries of hunting and habitat destruction caused dramatic declines. Males are still killed for their tusks, although this happens less often today thanks to a global ivory ban, in place since 1989. Today, Asian elephants thrive mostly in large remote reserves as well as in and among human habitation. Where elephants and people inhabit the same area, conflicts often occur.
Elephants can cause great damage to crops, and they occasionally kill people. Males in musth are responsible for the majority of attacks. Elephants play important roles in the cultures and religions of countries in most of their range, which inspires support for habitat protection measures, continued studies about elephants and their conservation needs, and efforts to mitigate conflicts between elephants and people.
A Few Asian Elephant Neighbors:
Tiger (Panthera tigris): At the top of the forest food chain, this mighty, endangered cat slinks through the shadows in some of the habitats where Asian elephants live.
Ambar (Cervus unicolor): A large Asian deer related to elk.
Hornbills (more than a dozen species in the Asian elephant's range): These flashy birds with large, strong beaks are important forest seed dispersors.
Asian elephants have been tamed as beasts of burden for about 4,000 years. Most elephants recruited for such work as hauling lumber are still taken from the wild, however, and this is a drain on the wild population.
Elephants' closest known relatives are dugongs and manatees, hyraxes, and aardvarks.
ZooGoer, "Making Room for Elephants," March/April 2002.
ZooGoer, "Elephants," January/February 1994.
The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management, by R. Sukumar; Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Elephants: A Cultural and Natural History, by Karl Groning and Martin Saller; Konemann (publisher), 1999.
Elephants: Majestic Creatures of the Wild, edited by Jeheskel Shoshani; Rodale Press, 1992.