Scientific name: Elephas maximus
Elephas maximus indicus – Indian elephant – endangered
Elephas maximus maximus – Sri Lankan elephant – endangered
Elephas maximus summatranus – Sumatran elephant – critically endangered
Elephas maximus borneensis – Bornean elephant – endangered
HABITAT: Forests across 13 Asian countries
CURRENT POPULATION TREND: Decreasing
There are an estimated 46,282 Asian elephants left in the wild – 10% of the population size of African elephants.
Females and their young form small, highly sociable herds. As they mature, the males leave the herds to form their own ‘bachelor’ or ‘maljurian’ herds before living largely solitary lives.
Smaller than African elephants, Asian elephants can be identified by their smaller ears and a rounder back, but males still have an impressive average weight of 5,400kg, with females weighing half that. To remain in good health, an Asian elephant requires 150kg of plant matter and 100 litres of water per day. If they have access to this, an elephant’s average natural lifespan is 60-70 years.
Asian elephants are migratory – following traditional routes (often known as corridors) to feeding grounds and water sources – it is this movement and need for food that often brings them into conflict with people (see ‘threats’ below).
Gestation period is 22 months and females usually give birth every 2 to 4 years. A newborn calf weighs 90kg and stands 1m tall.
Unlike African elephants, Asian elephants have rather small tusks and which may be absent in females. If tusks are present in females they are known as tushes, and they are only usually seen when the female opens her mouth. Some males may also lack tusks and they are known as makhnas, these are especially common among the Sri Lankan subspecies as less than 10% of Sri Lankan males have tusks.
While Asian elephants are still targeted by ivory poachers they also face other significant threats. As many as two elephants a week are killed in India as a result of poaching or human-elephant conflict, and, as a recent Elephant Family investigation revealed, Asian elephants are now being poached for their skin, which is used to make jewellery and traditional medicines for a predominantly Chinese market. The skin trade is twice as deadly since, unlike ivory poaching, it targets all elephants: males, females and calves. As a slow breeding species the loss of breeding females and calves is a significant threat to the survival of the species.
One of the most serious threats to Asia’s elephants is habitat loss. They share a landscape increasingly fragmented by agriculture, roads and railway lines, with an ever expanding human population, and this forces them into frequent conflict. In the first six months of 2018, 27 elephants were killed after being struck by trains, and 21 were killed by contact with low-hanging power lines. It isn’t just the elephants who suffer; farmers are often frustrated by elephants raiding their crops, and in India, one person a day is killed by conflict with elephants.
Elephant Family works to create peaceful co-existence between elephants and people and to prevent these avoidable conflicts; for more information on how, please see our Conservation projects.
* IUCN Red List
**Source data: 2017 tabulations of the Asian Elephant Range State Group Meeting
TEACHERS RESOURCE PACK
You can download the British Council teachers resource pack on Asian Elephants here