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Asian Elephant – The Largest Terrestrial Mammal in Asia

Asian elephant

The Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) is the smaller cousin of the African Elephant, which means that is part of the Proboscidea order and a member of the Elephantidae family.

Short history of the Asian Elephant

Mitochondrial DNA studies conducted by scientists suggested that Asian elephants and woolly mammoths are closely related.

In fact, woolly mammoths and Asian elephants seem to be more related to each other even than with the African elephants.

In today’s time, the Asian elephant has been listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List (1986) because their population has been reduced by 50% in the last decades, mostly due to habitat loss, habitat degradation, habitat fragmentation, hunting and poaching.

The population of the Asian elephant has been estimated to be between 41,400 and 52,300 in 2003.

Asian elephants in captivity can live up to 60 years if they are kept in semi-natural surroundings such as a camp in the forest, and only a few decades if kept in zoos.

The population of captive elephants is declining due to a low birth rate and of course a high death rate (which is mostly related to the environment in which the elephants live).

Asian Elephant Characteristics

The Asian elephant is smaller than the African elephant, but even so, it is the largest land animal in Asia, reaching a height (at the top of the head) of 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) and a weight of about 4 tons.

Females are even smaller, reaching a height (at the top of the head) of 2.7 meters (8 feet) and a weight of 2.7 tons.

The shoulder height is smaller in the case of the Asian elephant because its back has a convex shape with the highest point of the body located at the top of the head.

The largest male of Asian elephant ever recorded was shot by the Maharajah of Susang in the Garo Hills of Assam, India in 1924.

That bull had a height at the shoulder of 3.43 m (11.3 ft) and a weight of 7 tons.

I’m sure that the height of that elephant (at the top of the head) was at least 4 meters (13.1 feet).

What is the difference between an Asian elephant and an African elephant?

Asian elephants have a twin-domed head with an indent in the middle, while African elephants have rounded heads with a single dome on the top of the head and no indent.

Asian elephants have smaller ears because they live in a cooler climate, and also their skin has a small number of wrinkles.

The African elephant instead, has large ears due to the hot African climate, and its skin has more wrinkles, which helps him to cool down quicker.

Bull Asian elephants have tusks, but most of the females have smaller or no tusks at all.

In the case of the African elephant, both males and females have tusks, which are also larger than the tusks of the Asian elephant.

Asian elephants have a hard and very powerful trunk that ends with one finger-like process, while the trunk of the African elephants is more delicate and very versatile, but also extremely strong.

The trunk of the African elephants ends with two finger-like processes.

Asian elephants have a hard and very powerful trunk that ends with one finger-like lip, while the trunk of the African elephants is more delicate and very versatile, but also extremely strong.

The trunk of the African elephants ends with two finger-like lips.

Asian elephants have 20 pairs of ribs and they have five nails at the front legs, and only four nails at the back feet (rarely 5 nails).

The African elephant has 21 pairs of ribs, and five nails at the front legs, and four nails at the back feet.

Asian Elephant Taxonomy

Today, there are three subspecies of Asian elephants recognized worldwide and these are the Indian elephant, the Sri Lankan elephant and the Sumatran elephant.

1. Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) is a native elephant to mainland Asia.

Males reach a shoulder height up to 3.5 meters (11.5 ft) and a weight up to 5 tons (11,000 lbs).
Females are smaller, reaching a shoulder height of about 2 meters (6.6 ft) and a weight around 2 tons (4,400 lbs).

With a convex back, the highest body point of the Indian elephant is on the head, and its trunk has one finger-like process.

The Indian elephant has only 19 pairs of ribs and its skin is more brownish in color.

The ears are smaller due to the fact that the Asian climate is cooler than the climate in Africa, and the abdomen is more proportionate to the body weight.

The trunk of the Indian elephant is larger than the trunk of the African elephant and the Asian pachyderm also has a broader skull.

The Indian elephant lives today in mainland Asia, in countries such as: India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand, Myanmar, Malay Peninsula, China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

2. Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is another Asian elephant that is native to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan elephants are considered the largest subspecies of Asian elephants because the males can reach a shoulder height of 3.5 meters (11.5 ft), and a weight of 5.5 tons (12,100 lbs).

The females are smaller, reaching a shoulder height of about 2 meters (6.6 ft) and a weight of 2 tons (4,400 lbs).
The skin is darker in color with large patches of depigmentation on ears, trunk, face and belly.

Only 2% of the Sri Lankan elephants have tusks (7% of the males).

The Sri Lankan elephant lives today in the dry zone (lowlands) of Sri Lanka, and a small number of individuals still live in the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary.

3. Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) is an Asian elephant native to Sumatra and the Indonesia island.

Sumatran elephants are the smallest among all the Asian elephants because the males can reach a shoulder height of only 3.2 meters (10.5 ft) and a weight of only 4 tons (8,800 lbs), while the females reach a shoulder height of 2 meters (6.6 ft) and a weight of 2 tons (4,400 lbs).

Exactly like in the case of its Asian cousins, the Sumatran elephant has a convex back and this way the highest point of the body is on its head.

The skin is lighter in color than the skin of the Sri Lankan elephant, it has 20 pairs of ribs and only the males have tusks.

The Sumatran elephant population is estimated today at a number of only 2,400-2,800 individuals in the wild, and this is mostly due to the fact that 85% of their natural habitat is located outside the protected areas.

Asian Elephant Behavior and Social Organization

Elephants are crepuscular, which means that they are active mostly during the twilight.

However, an adult can consume daily about 150 kg (330 lbs) of plant food consisting of more than 100 different species of plants, vegetables, grass, fruits, etc.

At the same time they consume between 80 and 200 liter of water per day and even more when bathing.

For clay and minerals they like to scrape the soil from time to time.

Adult females and calves live together as groups, and the male calves will leave the group to live a solitary life when they become teenagers.

Bull elephants could form temporary “bachelor groups”, and when leaving the group they will start a solitary life.

Larger groups could consists of 15 females and their calves. and these females complex and fluid social networks between the individuals.

The group is always led by an older and experienced female called matriarch.

However, social ties will be weaker than in the case of the African elephants.

Elephants can hear and communicate using low-frequency sounds.

Asian Elephant Reproduction

Elephant bulls reach sexual maturity between the age of 12 and 15 years old, and will be in the musth (must) period every year between the age of 10 and 20 years.

In the musth period, the level of testosterone will increase 100 times, and the bull will become ready to mate, but also very aggressive.

You can easily recognize a bull in the musth period due to the secretion of pheromones, which can be seen on the head between the base of the ears and the lateral edge of the eyes.

Bulls usually fight to get access to a female in estrus (a female that is ready to mate), and very violent clashes will take place only rarely in the case of the Asian elephants.

After mating, the gestation period will take between 18 and 22 months, and the female will give birth to one calf (rarely twins).

At birth, the calf will weigh only about 100 kg (220 lbs), and will be totally dependent on its mother’s milk up to the age of three years old.

The new calf will receive special protection from its mother and the group of females.

The female will not give birth to a new calf before a period of four to five years, and always after weaning the previous calf.

Asian elephants can reach the age of 60 years in the wild and 80 years in captivity, but only if they are kept in semi-natural surroundings (without predators).

Asian Elephant Conservation

The conservation efforts to protecting the Asian elephant include the following steps: making the public aware of conservation issues, stopping habitat loss and fragmentation and initiating the habitat conservation of the Asian elephant at large scale.

The IUCN Red List put the Asian elephant on the list of endangered species in 1986 due to the fact that the population declined by 50% over the last three generations (60 to 75 years).

Asian Elephant Range and Distribution

Asian Elephant Range and Distribution.

Article written by:

Darius Savin is a lifelong animal lover and protector and the chief editor of Checkmember. He writes and edits articles and is also the creator of the distribution maps for all the creatures featured here.