E. m. maximus
E. m. indicus
E. m. sumatranus
E. m. borneensis
Asian elephant range
The Asian or Asiatic elephant (
Elephas maximus) is the only living
species of the genus
Elephas and is distributed in
Southeast Asia from
Nepal in the west to
Borneo in the east. Three subspecies
are recognised—E. m. maximus from Sri Lanka, the E. m. indicus from
mainland Asia, and E. m. sumatranus from the island of Sumatra.
Asian elephants are the largest living land animals in Asia.
Since 1986, the
Asian elephant has been listed as Endangered on the
IUCN Red List
IUCN Red List as the population has declined by at least 50 percent
over the last three generations, estimated to be 60–75 years. The
Asian elephant is primarily threatened by loss of habitat, habitat
degradation, fragmentation and poaching. In 2003, the wild
population was estimated at between 41,410 and 52,345 individuals.
Female captive elephants have lived beyond 60 years when kept in
semi-natural surroundings, such as forest camps. In zoos, Asian
elephants die at a much younger age; captive populations are declining
due to a low birth and high death rate. The oldest elephant ever
recorded however, lived and died in a zoo, at the age of 82 years. 
Elephas originated in
Sub-Saharan Africa during the
Pliocene, and spread throughout Africa before emigrating into southern
Asia. The earliest indications of captive use of Asian elephants
are engravings on seals of the
Indus Valley civilization
Indus Valley civilization dated to the
third millennium BC.
3 Distribution and habitat
4 Ecology and behaviour
5 Interaction with humans
6.1 Human–elephant conflict
6.3 Handling methods
7.1 In captivity
8 In culture
9 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
Sri Lankan elephants
Carl Linnaeus first described the genus
Elephas and an elephant from
Ceylon under the binomial
Elephas maximus in 1758. In 1798, Georges
Cuvier first described the
Indian elephant under the binomial Elephas
indicus. In 1847,
Coenraad Jacob Temminck
Coenraad Jacob Temminck first described the
Sumatran elephant under the binomial
Elephas sumatranus. Frederick
Nutter Chasen classified all three as subspecies of the Asian elephant
Three subspecies are currently recognised: the Sri Lankan elephant,
the Indian elephant, and the Sumatran elephant. In 1950, Paules
Edward Pieris Deraniyagala described the
Borneo elephant under the
Elephas maximus borneensis, taking as his type an
illustration in National Geographic, but not a living elephant in
accordance with the rules of the International Code of Zoological
Nomenclature. E. m. borneensis lives in northern
Borneo and is
smaller than all the other subspecies, but with larger ears, a longer
tail, and straight tusks. Results of genetic analysis indicate that
its ancestors separated from the mainland population about 300,000
The population in
Laos was tested to determine if it is a
subspecies as well. This research is considered vital, as less than
1,300 wild Asian elephants remain in Laos. In addition, two
extinct subspecies are considered to have existed:
Chinese elephant is sometimes separated as E. m. rubridens
(pink-tusked elephant); it disappeared after the 14th century
Syrian elephant (E. m. asurus), the westernmost and the largest
subspecies of the Asian elephant, became extinct around 100 BC. This
population, along with the Indian elephant, was considered the best
war elephant in antiquity, and was found superior to the smallish
North African elephant
North African elephant (Loxodonta africana pharaoensis) used by the
armies of Carthage.
Illustration of an elephant skeleton
In general, the
Asian elephant is smaller than the African bush
elephant and has the highest body point on the head. The back is
convex or level. The ears are small with dorsal borders folded
laterally. It has up to 20 pairs of ribs and 34 caudal vertebrae. The
feet have more nail-like structures than those of African
elephants—five on each forefoot, and four on each hind foot.
On average, males are about 2.75 m (9.0 ft) tall at the
shoulder and 4 t (4.4 short tons) in weight, while females are
smaller at about 2.4 m (7.9 ft) at the shoulder and
2.7 t (3.0 short tons) in weight. Length of body and
head including trunk is 5.5–6.5 m (18–21 ft) with the
tail being 1.2–1.5 m (3.9–4.9 ft) long. The largest
bull elephant ever recorded was shot by the
Maharajah of Susang in the
Garo Hills of Assam,
India in 1924, it weighed 7 t (7.7 short
tons), stood 3.43 m (11.3 ft) tall at the shoulder and was
8.06 m (26.4 ft) long from head to tail. There
are reports of larger individuals as tall as 3.7 m
Asian elephant drinking water
The distinctive trunk is an elongation of the nose and upper lip
combined; the nostrils are at its tip, which has a one finger-like
process. The trunk contains as many as 60,000 muscles, which consist
of longitudinal and radiating sets. The longitudinals are mostly
superficial and subdivided into anterior, lateral, and posterior. The
deeper muscles are best seen as numerous distinct fasciculi in a
cross-section of the trunk. The trunk is a multipurpose prehensile
organ and highly sensitive, innervated by the maxillary division of
the trigeminal nerve and by the facial nerve. The acute sense of smell
uses both the trunk and Jacobson's organ. Elephants use their trunks
for breathing, watering, feeding, touching, dusting, sound production
and communication, washing, pinching, grasping, defense and
The "proboscis" or trunk consists wholly of muscular and membranous
tissue, and is a tapering muscular structure of nearly circular
cross-section extending proximally from attachment at the anterior
nasal orifice, and ending distally in a tip or finger. The length may
vary from 1.5 to 2 m (59 to 79 in) or longer depending on
the species and age. Four basic muscle masses—the radial, the
longitudinal and two oblique layers—and the size and attachments
points of the tendon masses allow the shortening, extension, bending,
and twisting movements accounting for the ability to hold, and
manipulate loads of up to 300 kg (660 lb). Muscular and
tendinous ability combined with nervous control allows extraordinary
strength and agility movements of the trunk, such as sucking and
spraying of water or dust and directed air flow blowing.
The trunk can hold about four litres of water. Elephants will
playfully wrestle with each other using their trunks, but generally
use their trunks only for gesturing when fighting.
Tusker debarking a tree
Tusks serve to dig for water, salt, and rocks, to debark and uproot
trees, as levers for maneuvering fallen trees and branches, for work,
for display, for marking trees, as weapon for offense and defense, as
trunk-rests, and as protection for the trunk. Elephants are known to
be right or left tusked.
Female Asian elephants usually lack tusks; if tusks—in that case
called "tushes"—are present, they are barely visible, and only seen
when the mouth is open. The enamel plates of the molars are greater in
number and closer together in Asian elephants. Some males may also
lack tusks; these individuals are called "filsy makhnas", and are
especially common among the
Sri Lankan elephant
Sri Lankan elephant population.
Furthermore, the forehead has two hemispherical bulges, unlike the
flat front of the African elephant. Unlike African elephants which
rarely use their forefeet for anything other than digging or scraping
soil, Asian elephants are more agile at using their feet in
conjunction with the trunk for manipulating objects. They can
sometimes be known for their violent behaviour.
A record tusk described by
George P. Sanderson
George P. Sanderson measured 5 ft
(1.5 m) along the curve, with a girth of 16 in (41 cm)
at the point of emergence from the jaw, the weight being
104 1⁄2 lb (47.4 kg). This was from an elephant
killed by Sir Brooke and measured 8 ft (2.4 m) in length,
and nearly 17 in (43 cm) in circumference, and weighed
90 lb (41 kg). The tusk's weight was, however, exceeded by
the weight of a shorter tusk of about 6 ft (1.8 m) in length
which weighed 100 lb (45 kg).
Depigmented skin on the forehead and ears of an Asian elephant
Skin colour is usually grey, and may be masked by soil because of
dusting and wallowing. Their wrinkled skin is movable and contains
many nerve centers. It is smoother than that of African elephants, and
may be depigmented on the trunk, ears, or neck. The epidermis and
dermis of the body average 18 mm (0.71 in) thick; skin on
the dorsum is 30 mm (1.2 in) thick providing protection
against bites, bumps, and adverse weather. Its folds increase surface
area for heat dissipation. They can tolerate cold better than
excessive heat. Skin temperature varies from 24 to 32.9 °C (75.2
to 91.2 °F). Body temperature averages 35.9 °C
Asian elephants are highly intelligent and self-aware. They have a
very large and highly convoluted neocortex, a trait also shared by
humans, apes and certain dolphin species. Elephants have a greater
volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing than all
other existing land animals, and extensive studies place elephants in
the category of great apes in terms of cognitive abilities for tool
use and tool making. They exhibit a wide variety of behaviours,
including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering,
mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation,
self-awareness, memory, and language. Elephants are reported to go to
safer ground during natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes,
although there have been no scientific records of this since it is
hard to recreate or predict natural disasters.
Distribution and habitat
A herd of elephants in the grasslands of Jim Corbett National Park
Asian elephant grazing along the banks of Kabini, Nagarhole National
Park, Karnataka, India
Asian elephants inhabit grasslands, tropical evergreen forests,
semi-evergreen forests, moist deciduous forests, dry deciduous forests
and dry thorn forests, in addition to cultivated and secondary forests
and scrublands. Over this range of habitat types elephants occur from
sea level to over 3,000 m (9,800 ft). In the eastern
Himalaya in northeast India, they regularly move up above 3,000 m
(9,800 ft) in summer at a few sites.
In China, Asian elephants survive only in the prefectures of
Xishuangbanna, Simao, and
Lincang of southern Yunnan.
In Bangladesh, some isolated populations survive in the south-east
Chittagong Hills. A herd of 20–25 wild elephants was reported as
being present in the
Garo Hills of
Mymensingh in the late-1990s, being
detached from a big herd in the Peack hills of
India and prevented
from returning by fences put up in the meantime by the Indian border
security force. The herd was estimated at about 60 individuals in
Three subspecies are recognised:
Sri Lankan elephant
Sri Lankan elephant occurs in Sri Lanka;
Indian elephant occurs in mainland Asia: Bangladesh, Bhutan,
Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Malay Peninsula, Myanmar, Nepal,
Sumatran elephant occurs in Sumatra.
Borneo elephant occurs in Borneo's northern and northeastern
parts. In 2003, mitochondrial DNA analysis and microsatellite data
indicated that the
Borneo elephant population is derived from stock
that originated in the region of the Sunda Islands. The genetic
Borneo elephants warrants their recognition as a
separate Evolutionarily Significant Unit.
Ecology and behaviour
A 5-month-old calf and its 17-month-old cousin in a sanctuary in Laos
Elephants are crepuscular. They are classified as megaherbivores
and consume up to 150 kg (330 lb) of plant matter per
day. They are generalist feeders, and both grazers and browsers,
and were recorded to feed on 112 different plant species, most
commonly of the order Malvales, and the legume, palm, sedge and true
grass families. They browse more in the dry season with bark
constituting a major part of their diet in the cool part of that
season. They drink at least once a day and are never far from a
permanent source of fresh water. They need 80–200 litres of water
a day and use even more for bathing. At times, they scrape the soil
for clay or minerals.
Adult females and calves may move about together as groups, but adult
males disperse from their mothers upon reaching adolescence. Bull
elephants may be solitary or form temporary 'bachelor groups'.
Cow-calf unit sizes generally tend to be small, typically consisting
of three adult females which are most likely related, and their
offspring; however, larger groups containing as many as 15 adult
females may occur. There can also be seasonal aggregations
containing 100 individuals at a time, including calves and subadults.
Until recently, Asian elephants, like African elephants, were thought
to typically follow the leadership of older adult females, or
matriarchs, but females can form extensive and very fluid social
networks, with individual variation in the degree of
gregariousness. Social ties generally tend to be weaker than in
Elephants are able to distinguish low amplitude sounds. They use
infrasound to communicate; this was first noted by the Indian
naturalist Krishnan and later studied by Payne.
Tiger predation on Asian elephants is rare but is not restricted only
to small calves.
Elephant § Mating
Indian elephants in the Coimbatore Forests, Tamil Nadu
A cow elephant with suckling young at the Chester Zoo
Bulls will fight one another to get access to oestrous females. Strong
fights over access to females are extremely rare. Bulls reach sexual
maturity around the age of 12–15. Between the age of 10 and 20
years, bulls undergo an annual phenomenon known as "musth". This is a
period where the testosterone level is up to 100 times greater than
non-musth periods, and they become aggressive. Secretions containing
pheromones occur during this period, from the paired temporal glands
located on the head between the lateral edge of the eye and the base
of the ear.
The gestation period is 18–22 months, and the female gives birth to
one calf, only occasionally twins. The calf is fully developed by the
19th month, but stays in the womb to grow so that it can reach its
mother to feed. At birth, the calf weighs about 100 kg
(220 lb), and is suckled for up to three years. Once a female
gives birth, she usually does not breed again until the first calf is
weaned, resulting in a four to five year birth interval. Females stay
on with the herd, but mature males are chased away.
Asiatic elephants reach adulthood at 17 years of age in both
sexes. Elephants' life expectancy has been exaggerated in the
past. They live on average for 60 years in the wild and 80 in
Females produce sex pheromones. A principal component thereof,
(Z)-7-dodecen-1-yl acetate, has also been found to be a sex pheromone
in numerous species of insects.
Interaction with humans
Elephants are used for safari tourism throughout Asia
Sri Lankan elephants at Esala Perahera
At this elephant training camp, captive elephants are taught to handle
At most seasons of the year, Asian elephants are timid and much more
ready to flee from a foe than to attack. However, solitary rogues are
frequently an exception to this rule, and sometimes make unprovoked
attacks on passers-by. Rogue elephants sometimes take up a position
near a road, making it impassable to travelers. Females with calves
are at all times dangerous to approach. When an
Asian elephant makes a
charge, it tightly curls up its trunk and attacks by trampling its
victim with feet or knees, or, if a male, by pinning it to the ground
with its tusks. During musth, bulls are highly dangerous, not only to
human beings, but also to other animals. At the first indications,
trained elephants are secured tightly to prevent any mishaps. There is
also one case of a rogue elephant having actually consumed a human, an
attack merited to be extremely unnatural. The elephant, a rogue
female, had previously lost her calf to an accident involving farmers.
This grievous loss led the elephant to target humans first as a
threat, and then as a food source as her mental state deteriorated
until she was finally killed and later dissected, revealing through
DNA analysis that she had indeed consumed human flesh. The incident
was revealed to the general public in several articles and in the
Animal Planet documentary "World's Deadliest Towns: Man-Eating
Further information: Captive elephants
The first historical record of the domestication of Asian elephants
was in Harappan times. Ultimately, the elephant went on to become
a siege engine, a mount in war, a status symbol, a beast of burden,
and an elevated platform for hunting during historical times in South
Elephants have been captured from the wild and tamed for use by
humans. Their ability to work under instruction makes them
particularly useful for carrying heavy objects. They have been used
particularly for timber-carrying in jungle areas. Other than their
work use, they have been used in war, in ceremonies, and for carriage.
It is reported that war elephants are still in use by the Kachin
Independence Army (KIA) to defend
Kachin State in northern Myanmar
against domination by Myanmar's military. The KIA use about four dozen
elephants to carry supplies. They have been used for their ability
to travel over difficult terrain by hunters, for whom they served as
mobile hunting platforms. The same purpose is met in safaris in modern
The pre-eminent threats to Asian elephants today are loss, degradation
and fragmentation of habitat, leading in turn to increasing conflicts
between humans and elephants. They are poached for ivory and a variety
of other products including meat and leather.
Prime elephant habitat cleared for jhum—a type of shifting
cultivation practiced in Arunachal Pradesh
Elephants on the road in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
One of the major instigators of human–wildlife conflict is
competition for space. Destruction of forests through logging,
encroachment, slash-and-burn, shifting cultivation, and monoculture
tree plantations are major threats to the survival of elephants.
Human–elephant conflicts occur when elephants raid crops of shifting
cultivators in fields, which are scattered over a large area
interspersed with forests. Depredation in human settlements is another
major area of human–elephant conflict occurring in small forest
pockets, encroachments into elephant habitat, and on elephant
migration routes. Studies in
Sri Lanka indicate that traditional
slash-and-burn agriculture creates optimal habitat for elephants by
creating a mosaic of successional-stage vegetation. Populations
inhabiting small habitat fragments are much more liable to come into
conflict with humans.
Human-elephant conflict is categorized into:
ultimate causes including growing human population, large-scale
development projects and poor top-down governance;
proximate causes including habitat loss due to deforestation,
disruption of elephant migratory routes, expansion of agriculture and
illegal encroachment into protected areas.
Development such as border fencing along the India-
has become a major impediment to the free movement of elephants.
In Assam, more than 1,150 humans and 370 elephants died as a result of
human-elephant conflict between 1980 and 2003. In
over 400 people are killed by elephants every year, and 0.8 to 1
million hectares are damaged, affecting at least 500,000 families
across the country. Moreover, elephants are known to destroy crops
worth up to US$2–3 million annually. This has major impacts on
the welfare and livelihoods of local communities, as well as the
future conservation of this species.
18th century ivory powder flask
The demand for ivory as a result of rapid economic development during
the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in East Asia, led to rampant
poaching and the serious decline of elephants in many Asian and
African range countries. In Thailand, the illegal trade in live
elephants and ivory still flourishes. Although the quantity of worked
ivory seen openly for sale has decreased substantially since 2001,
Thailand still has one of the largest and most active ivory industries
seen anywhere in the world. Tusks from Thai poached elephants also
enter the market; between 1992 and 1997 at least 24 male elephants
were killed for their tusks.
Up to the early 1990s, Vietnamese ivory craftsmen used exclusively
Asian elephant ivory from
Vietnam and neighbouring Lao PDR and
Cambodia. Before 1990, there were few tourists and the low demand for
worked ivory could be supplied by domestic elephants. Economic
liberalization and an increase in tourism raised both local and
visitors’ demands for worked ivory, which resulted in heavy
Young elephants are captured and illegally imported to
Myanmar for use in the tourism industry; calves are used mainly in
amusement parks and are trained to perform various stunts for
The calves are often subjected to a 'breaking in' process, which may
involve being tied up, confined, starved, beaten and tortured; as a
result, two-thirds may perish. Handlers use a technique known as
the training crush, in which "handlers use sleep-deprivation, hunger,
and thirst to "break" the elephants' spirit and make them submissive
to their owners"; moreover, handlers drive nails into the elephants'
ears and feet.
Elephas maximus is listed on
CITES Appendix I.
Asian elephants are quintessential flagship species, deployed to
catalyze a range of conservation goals, including:
habitat conservation at landscape scales
generating public awareness of conservation issues
mobilization as a popular cultural icon both in
India and the
Rhythmic swaying behaviour is not reported in free ranging wild
elephants, and may be symptomatic of psychological disorders.
About half of the global zoo elephant population is kept in European
zoos, where they have about half the median life span of conspecifics
in protected populations in range countries. This discrepancy is
clearest in Asian elephants: infant mortality is twice that seen in
Burmese timber camps, and adult survivorship in zoos has not improved
significantly in recent years. One risk factor for Asian zoo elephants
is being moved between institutions, with early removal from the
mother tending to have additional adverse effects. Another risk factor
is being born into a zoo rather than being imported from the wild,
with poor adult survivorship in zoo-born Asians apparently being
conferred prenatally or in early infancy. Likely causes for
compromised survivorship is stress and/or obesity.
Demographic analysis of captive Asian elephants in North America
indicates that the population is not self-sustaining. First year
mortality is nearly 30 per cent, and fecundity is extremely low
throughout the prime reproductive years. Data from North American
and European regional studbooks from 1962 to 2006 were analysed for
deviation of the birth and juvenile death sex ratio. Of 349 captive
calves born, 142 died prematurely. They died within one month of
birth, major causes being stillbirth and infanticide by either the
calf's mother or by one of the exhibition mates. The sex ratio of
stillbirths in Europe was found to have a tendency for excess of
A folio from the
Elephants in Kerala culture
Elephants in Kerala culture and Cultural
depictions of elephants
The elephant plays an important part in the culture of the
subcontinent and beyond, being featured prominently in the
Panchatantra fables and the
Buddhist Jataka tales. They play a major
role in Hinduism: the god Ganesha's head is that of an elephant, and
the "blessings" of a temple elephant are highly valued. Elephants are
frequently used in processions where the animals are adorned with
The elephant is depicted in several Indian manuscripts and treatises.
Notable amongst these is the
Matanga Lila (elephant sport) of
Nilakantha. The manuscript
Hastividyarnava is from
In the Burmese, Thai and Sinhalese animal and planetary zodiac, the
elephant, both tusked and tuskless, are the fourth and fifth animal
zodiacs of the Burmese, the fourth animal zodiac of the Thai, and the
second animal zodiac of the
Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka.
Similarly, the elephant is the twelfth animal zodiac in the Dai animal
zodiac of the
Dai people in southern China.
Elephants in Thailand
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