Asian Elephant, Elephas maximus
July 2008

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Asian elephant

(Alter 2004) (Fernando et al. 2003) (Fleischer et al 2001) (Gheerbrant et al 1996, 2009) (Nikaido 2003) (Palombo and Villa 2001) (Poulakakis et al 2006) (Rohland et al 2007 (Shoshani 1992, 2006) (Thenius 1990) (Yang 1996)

Describer: Order established = Illiger (1811). Family describer = Gray (1821). Revised by Maglio (1973). The Asian Elephant (Elephas) = Linnaeus (1758).

Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
        Class: Mammalia
             Order: Proboscidea
                    Family: Elephantidae
                       Subtribe: Elephantina
                           Genus: Elephas
                                  Species: Elephas maximus (Asian elephant)
                                          Subspecies: E. m. maximus (Sri Lankan Asian elephant)
                                          Subspecies: E. m. indicus (mainland Asian elephant)
                                          Subspecies: E. m. sumatranus (Sumatran Asian elephant)
                       Subtribe: Loxodontina
                              Genus: Loxodonta
                                  Species: Loxodonta africana
                                          Subspecies: Loxodonta africana africana (bush or savannah elephant)
                                          Subspecies: Loxodonta africana cyclotis (forest elephant)

Taxonomic History and Nomenclature

Proposed Subspecies

Common Names

Scientific Name


(Kurt 1990) (Santiapillai & Jackson 1990) (Sukumar 1989, 2008)


Asian Elephant Distribution
Adapted from
according to IUCN fact sheet
Click here or on map for detailed distribution (IUCN)


(Alter 2004)(Fowler & Makata 2006) (Hutchinson et al 2006)(Manoussaki el al 2007) (Mariappa 1986) (Shosani1992)
(Shoshani & Eisenberg 1982) (Sukumar 1989) (Yokoyama et al 2005)

Body Weight: Body Length: Tail Length: Shoulder Height:



Hair and Nails







Internal Organs


Sexual Dimorphism

Other Physical Characteristics

(Eltringham 1991) (Fernando and Lande 2000) (Hart et al 2001) (McKay 1973) (Moss 1990) (Moss et al 2011) (O'Connell-Rodwell 2001) (Payne & Langbauer 1992)(Poole 1996) (Pringle 2008) (Rasmussen and Krishnamurthy 2000) (Santipelli &Suprahman 1986) (Schulte 2006)(Shoshani & Eisenberg 1982) (Sukumar 1989)

Activity Cycle

Territory Size

Social Groups





   Vocal Cues    Tactile Cues    Visual Cues    Olfaction/Scent Marking    Other senses


Tool Use

Interspecies Interaction

(Poole 1996) (Santiapelli & Suprahman 1986) (Sukumar 1989, 1994)


Anatomy and Physiology

Food Items and Feeding Strategies

(Allen 2006) (Alter 2004)(Langbauer 2000) (Moss 1990) (Shoshani & Eisenberg 1982) (Sukumar 1989, 1994)

  Reproduction Reproductive Rate:
  • Most females give birth for the first time at 16-17 years.
  • In optimal habitats, calving intervals are 2.5-4 years. In less favorable conditions, calving intervals are 5-8 years.
  • Cows can calve past age 50. Two captive elephants (Meennakshi and Tara) calved at 54 and 62 years, respectively.
  • Lasts 18-22 months, the longest gestation period of any mammal

Life Stages
  • Birth
    • Litter size: Usually one calf; rarely twins (structure of uterus allows births several weeks apart)
    • Weight: 75-115kg (165-254 lbs)
    • Height: 75-100 cm (2.5-3.5 ft)
    • Calves are very hairy compared to adults. Hairier than African elephant calves.

  • Infant (< 1 year old)

    • Infants may have many female juvenile helpers - allomothers or "aunties" (great survival advantage)
      • Helpers allow mother to feed and rest; important for lactation
    • Can stand on feet shortly after birth
    • Follow the mother in her daily routines within a few days
    • During first three months develop motor skills
    • Females attracted to young calves

  • Juvenile

    • Females are attracted to young calves; often minister to their needs so mothers can spend more time feeding and resting, which are important for lactation
    • Age of weaning 18 months to 3 years or longer;
      • May be forced to wean when younger sibling is born.
      • Around age of weaning, differences in sexes begin to appear
        • Females strengthen bonds with family
        • Males become more independent, leaving family for longer periods to feed, explore or play
    • Initial period of rapid growth slows at about 5 years; decline in growth rate is greater for females than for males
    • Females care for young of both sexes during 10-15 years of development until sexual maturity
  • Subadult

    • Can be difficult to distinguish from juveniles
    • No fixed age of puberty; may depend on available nutrition
    • Males often seen away from herds
    • Penis large, although subadult males are not reproductively active
    • Females may exhibit swelling of mammae
  • Adult

    • Age of sexual maturity varies depending on nutrition
      • Bulls 14-15 (as early as 9) years
      • Cows minimum age to breeding 14-15 years; usuall 18-20 (Shoshani & Eisenberg 1982; Sukumar 1989)
    • Bulls may not mate until late teens or twenties due to social hierarchy
    • Males are distinguishable by enlargement of head and distinct penis sheath; no testicles visible
    • Females and males often hard to distinguish because female's clitoris is large
    • Females have square backs
    • Males continue to grow at continuous slow rate. Female growth plateaus between 15 and 30 years
    • Males in wild enter musth around age 30

  • Comparable to human longevity
  • May live 60-70 years in the wild. Over 80 years in captivity

  • Calves preyed upon by lions, hyaenas, tigers
  • Complications of calving
  • Drought; accidental falls
  • Bulls fighting in musth
  • Killed by humans defending their crops or poaching
  • Mortality in bulls much higher than in cows, mostly due to poaching and fighting
  • May starve to death in old age when the last of their teeth falls or worn out

(Csuti 2006) (Kurt 1990)(McNeely, 1992) (Shoshani, 1992) (Tuttle 1992)

  •  2000 B.C. First trained for war by peoples of the Indus Valley. Not terribly effective due to tendency to retreat when assaulted.
  • 1796 First Asian elephant brought to North America
  • 1880 First North American captive elephant was born in Philadelphia, PA.
    • Named Columbia, her parents were part of Cooper and Bailey Circus
  • 1979 Cross between African and Asian elephants at Chester Zoo, England
    • Female Asian was bred by a male African
    • Calf only survived 10 days
  • 1985 Raja, a captive male elephant with extremely long tusks, declared a national treasure in Sri Lanka
  • Currently (as of 2000) 285 Asian elephants in North American facilities and 16,000 world-wide
  • 13,000-16,500 employed throughout Asia in logging, tourism, transportation industries, and religious ceremonies
    • Outstanding qualities: intelligence, strength, flexibility, low maintenance costs, and minimal impact on environment.
  • Conservation problems in Asia
    • Lack of documentation of captive elephants (important for breeding)
    • Hesitancy to breed working elephants due to loss of work from pregnant females
    • Recent curtailment of logging has left many "unemployed" elephant beggars
  • Genetic survival of African and Asian elephants may depend on successful captive breeding programs
  • General challenges in captive breeding include:
    • Inability to keep breeding-age bulls due to aggression during musth
    • Space requirements (American Zoological Association): 167.2 sq. m (1800 sq. ft.) for single adult outdoors; 83.6 sq m (900 sq. ft.) for each additional elephant
    • Lack of knowledge of elephant's estrous cycle
    • Dietary deficiencies
    • Rejection of calves by mothers due to lack of socialization

(Asian Nature Conservation Foundation 2008) (Blake & Hedges 2004) (Choudhury et al. 2008) (Fernando 2003) (Gopala et al. 2011) (Santiapillai & Jackson 1990) (Sukumar 1989, 2003 , 2008)

Population Status

  • Population estimates of Asian elephants: 41,410-52,345 animals (Sukumar 2003)
    • By comparison, African elephants estimated at 600,000
  • Estimated population sizes by region:
    • Southern India 10,500-14,500
    • All of India 25,000
    • Myanmar: 4000-5000
    • Thailand: 3000-3700 (declining)
    • Sri Lanka: 3000 +
    • Indonesia's Sumatra: 3000+ (declining)
    • Peninsular Malaysia: 1250-1466 (stable) and 1100-1600
    • Borneo: 1000
    • Laos: 780-1200
    • Bhutan: 400-600
    • Cambodia: 250-600
    • China (only southern Yunan): 200-250
    • Bangladesh: 196-227
    • Nepal: 100-170
    • Vietnam: 76-94
  • Overall, populations believed to be decreasing (Choudhury et al. 2008)


  • ISIS captive population
  • CITES: Appendix I
  • IUCN Status: Endangered A2C (version 3.1) (2008) (Explanation: Reduction in population size greater than or equal to 50 % over three generations because of decline in habitat)
  • IUCN Status: The Sumatran elephant subspecies is now Critically Endangered (Gopala et al. 2011)
    • Over 69% of this elephants potential habitat has been lost in one generation (25 years); this pattern is expected to continue
  • 1972 Indian Wildlife Protection Act
  • 1976 Listed as Endangered
  • 1989 CITES ( Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora) approves an international ban on ivory. Not likely to provide much benefit to Asian elephants as poaching is minor problem
  • 1997 CITES established MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) to systematically collect data on elephant population trends. 15 sites in South Asia and 16 in Southeast Asia have been selected for surveying
  • 1998 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS) recommends sites for conservation action: sets conservation priorities and resource allocations
  • Considered a "flagship" species ( chosen to represent an environmental cause) and a "keystone" species (a species whose presence is vital to the ecosystem, as is the keystone in an arch)
  • Formal recognition of E.m. boreensis as distinct subspecies elevates their conservation importance and ESU's (evolutionary significant units)

Threats to survival

  • Primary threat due is habitat loss and fragmentation
    • Agriculture - humans use land for coffee, tea, rubber, and teak farming, slash-and burn cultivation
    • Aquaculture in coastal wetlands
    • Mining of iron ore
    • Development programs, roads
    • Environmental devastation from wars
  • Exploding human populations and resulting conflicts with elephant populations
  • Poaching, although to a lesser extent than the African elephant.

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