The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), commonly known as the Asiatic elephant, is the only living species of Elephas and may be found across the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, from India to Nepal in the north, Sumatra in the south, and Borneo in the South East. Asian herds also live in protected areas in China, on the Myanmar border. It is possible to sight Asian elephants in protected, nature reserves across East Asia and South East Asia.
E. m. maximus is found in Sri Lanka, E. m. indicus is found in mainland Asia, while E. m. sumatranus is found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Table of Contents
- Genus: Elephas
- Family: Elephantidae
- Order: Proboscidea
- Phylum: Chordata
Characteristics of Asian Elephants
The Asian elephant is the continent’s largest living land mammal. But Asian elephants or Asiatic elephants are generally smaller than African bush elephants and have their highest body point on a double domed head. The rear is either convex or flat. The ears are smaller, have folded dorsal margins and don’t splay out at shoulder height. These Asian giants, can have up to 20 pairs of ribs and 34 vertebrae in the caudal region.
The feet have five nail-like structures on each forefoot and four on each hind foot, while a African elephants hind feet only display 3 nails. Unlike the African elephant, which has a two ‘fingers’ for clasping at the end of the trunk, the Asian elephant has one, ‘finger’.
Males stand about 2.75 m (9.0 ft) tall at the shoulder and weigh about 4 t (4.4 short tons), while females stand about 2.40 m (7.9 ft) tall at the shoulder and weigh about 2.7 t (3.0 short tons). Asian elephants have less sexual dimorphism in body size than African bush elephants, with males standing 15 percent and 23 percent taller in the former and latter, respectively. The body and head, including the trunk, measure 5.5–6.5 m (18–21 ft) in length, with the tail measuring 1.2–1.5 m (3.9–4.9 ft).
Because of dusting and wallowing, skin color is usually grey and might be obscured by soil. Their wrinkled skin moves and has several nerve centers. It is smoother than that of African elephants, and the trunk, ears, and neck may be depigmented. The epidermis and dermis of the body are 18 mm (0.71 in) thick on average, with 30 mm (1.2 in) thick skin on the dorsum giving protection from bites, bumps, and bad weather. Its folds improve the amount of surface area available for heat dissipation.
Habitat of Asian Elephants
In addition to cultivated and secondary woods and scrublands, Asian elephants live in grasslands, tropical evergreen forests, semi-evergreen forests, moist deciduous forests, dry deciduous forests, and dry thorn forests. Elephants can be found in a variety of habitats, from sea level to above 3,000 meters (9,800 ft). They often travel beyond 3,000 m (9,800 ft) in summer at a few spots in the eastern Himalaya in northeast India.
In China, the Asian elephant is only found in the southern Yunnan prefectures of Xishuangbanna, Simao, and Lincang. However, recently a heard of elephants, traveled over 500km (310 miles) north from its original habitat near Xishuangbanna. Risking continuous interaction with humans the seemingly fearless herd is believed to be hunting for a new home.
Fantastic Facts About Asian Elephants
- Asian elephants have been known to turn on taps and steal bottles of wine with their trunks
- Asian elephants communicate mostly with infrasonic sound and the sounds of the vibration of their feet.
- Asian elephants do not lie down for long as it puts pressure on their heart and lungs. They often slouch on a tree to rest.
- On expeditions in Khao Yai park you’ll meet with a ranger, and be given leech socks to avoid the leech-infested Khao Sok river.
Behavior of Asian Elephants
Elephants are crepuscular which means they are most active during the twighlight period. They are megaherbivores (herbivores that weigh over 1000kg) consume up to 150 kg (330 lb.) of plant materials per day. Asian elephants grazers and browsers, and they are generalist feeders. They eat at least 112 distinct plant species, mostly grasses and bark, but also from the legume, palm, sedge families.
The giant mammals browse more throughout the dry season, with bark making up a large proportion of their diet during the cooler months. They drink at least once a day and are never more than a few meters away from a permanent source of fresh water. They require 80–200 liters of water each day, with bathing consumes much more. They scratch the soil for clay or minerals on occasion.
Herds of several elephants or more are common. A grand matriarch will lead the herd, which will consist of mostly females and juvenile males. Adult males will often form their own bachelor groups.
Conservation Status of The Asian Elephant
The Asian elephant (number 4) has been designated as Endangered on the IUCN Red List since 1986, owing to a population loss of at least 50% over the last three elephant generations (about 60–75 years).
Loss of habitat, habitat degradation, fragmentation, and poaching are the main threats. The wild population was expected to be 48,323-51,680 animals in 2019. When housed in semi-natural settings, such as forest camps, female captive elephants have lived to be over 60 years old. Asian elephants die at an earlier age in zoos, and captive populations are dwindling due to a low birth and high death rate.
Where You Can I See Asian Elephants in the Wild?
Thailand is one of the best places to see Asian elephants in the wild. Only a few hours from an airport each park has many species including protected, wild Asian elephants. A few of the most accessible include:
- Khao Sok national park, Phuket
- Kui Buri national park, Prachuap (320 elephants)
- Kaeng Krachuap, Petchuburi
Khao Yai and Kui Buri stand out as the primary parks to spot rare mammals such as Bontok and Asian elephants. However, even in these parks elephants are shy of human contact. One of the best ways to see them in their natural setting is to book a night safari and the other is to book a guided walk with a forest guide.
Q & A About Asian Elephants
How many Asian elephants can be found in the wild?
Over the last 75 years, its population has fallen by an estimated 50%, with only 20,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants living in the wild.
Where can you find Asian elephants in the wild?
References: Thai National parks: https://www.thainationalparks.com/khao-yai-national-park
Do elephants help the natural environment?
Elephants help the natural environment by clearing spaces in vegetation cover, selective seed dispersal and with spreading nutrients. Knock on effects impact smaller herbivores and the climate.
Can I see Elephants in the wild in Sri Lanka?
You can see elephants in the wild at Yala, Minneriya and Udawalawe National Park.