Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Asian Elephant Facts

The elephant is the largest living land mammal.  Two species exist in Africa, the savannah and the forest, and one in Asia.  A male Asian elephant measures 8m from trunk to tail, stands 3m high at the shoulder, weighing up to 5 tonnes. 

How are elephants classified?

Living things can be organised into different groups.  Species that are alike are grouped together.  This is called classification.

Class:                     Mammals
Order:                   Proboscidea
Family:                  Elephantidae
Species:               Elephas maximus (Asian elephant) 

Distribution and population decline

Some 40,000 - 50,000 (although possibly as low as 35,000) Asian elephants are found in India and 12 other countries in SE Asia.  There have been drastic population declines due to the ivory trade, habitat loss and conflict with humans, and elephants are extinct in many parts of their former range.

Habitat

Asian elephants live in a variety of forest habitats from tropical to deciduous forests. A keystone species, elephants help to maintain the forest through seed dispersal; they also open up spaces within the canopy by knocking over smaller trees, making room for new growth, benefitting both the forest and the other species living within it.

Diet

Elephants are herbivores and need >150kg of food every day, requiring them to feed for around 75% of their time. As herbivores their diet is varied, consisting of grass, leaves, twigs, buds, fruit and even roots and bark.

Adaptations

All elephants have a number of distinctive physical characteristics, the first being their versatile trunk, perfectly adapted to picking up food, touching and greeting other elephants, drawing up water, breathing and producing sound. Secondly they have large ears which they flap to keep cool and use to display aggression. One of the key distinguishing characteristic between Asian and African elephants, the ears of the Asian elephant are smaller and more rounded than the African elephant. Strong molar teeth allow them to grind up food, and rumbling calls – too low for human ears – allow long distance communication. Male Asian elephants have small tusks while female Asian elephants have no tusks at all.

Ecology and Behaviour 

Elephants live in family groups called herds which, presided over by a matriarch (dominant female). The matriarch, using information passed on by her mother, guides and protects the family, which consists of her sisters, daughters, female cousins and calves.  The matriarch’s knowledge of the home range and traditional water sources is vital to the herds’ survival.

Elephants have a 55-70 year life span and reach maturity at around 12 years old.  Bull elephants live outside the family herd, either alone or in small groups of two or three, and mating takes place after courtship.  Pregnancy lasts 22 months and at birth the mother is often helped by an experienced female.  The new-born calf relies on its mother’s milk for up to four years and is watched over by the entire herd.

Threats

Described as the ‘world’s most charismatic mega-herbivore’, elephants face a number of serious threats, including illegal killing for the ivory trade. However the current greatest threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss and the resultant conflict with humans, due to habitat destruction for agriculture and through human population expansion.

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