/ ©: WWF-Indonesia

Asia elephants

Sacred but exploited, the Asian elephant has been worshipped for centuries and is still used today for ceremonial and religious purposes. Not only is it revered for its role within Asian culture and religion, it is also a key biological species in the tropical forests of Asia.
 / ©: WWF-International
© WWF-International
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Indian elephant (Elephas maximus bengalensis); Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India.
© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon


 


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Key Facts

  • Common Name

    Asian elephant; Elephant d'Asie (Fr); Elefante Asiàtico (Sp)

  • Scientific Name

    Elephas maximus spp

  • Status

    Endangered (IUCN A2c); CITES: Appendix I

  • Population

    25,600 to 32,750 individuals

Background

Although many thousands of domesticated Asian elephants are found in Southeast Asia, this magnificent animal is threatened by extinction in the wild: in the face of rapidly growing human populations, the Asian elephant's habitat is shrinking fast.

Wild elephant populations are mostly small, isolated, and unable to join as ancient migratory routes are cut off by human settlements.

Confrontations between elephants and people often lead to deaths on both sides, and poaching for ivory, meat and hides is still a widespread problem.

Physical Description

The Asian elephant is the largest terrestrial mammal in Asia. It is smaller than the African elephant, with relatively smaller ears. Asian elephants have a single "finger" on the upper lip of the trunk, while African elephants have a second on the lower tip.

A significant number of adult males Asian elephants are tuskless, and the percentage of males carrying ivory varies by region (possibly reflecting the intensity of past ivory hunting), from only about 5% in Sri Lanka to 90% in south India.

Asian elephants keep their ears in constant motion in order to radiate the heat they generate and therefore cool themselves. The species are reported to have well developed hearing, vision, and olfaction, and are also fine swimmers.

Size

Body length: 550-640cm
Shoulder height: 250-300cm
Weight: 5,000kg

Colour

The skin colour of Asian elephants is dark grey to brown, with patches of pink on the forehead, the ears, the base of the trunk and chest.

 / ©: naturepl.com/Anup Shah / WWF
Baby Indian elephant (Elephas Indicus Maximus) with adult
© naturepl.com/Anup Shah / WWF

Habitat & Ecology


Asian elephants are found in scrub forest, favouring areas with grass, low woody plants and trees.

Social Structure

Asian elephants are extremely sociable, forming groups of 6 to 7 related females that are led by the oldest female, the 'matriarch'. Like African elephants, these groups occasionally join others to form herds, although these associations are relatively transient.

Life Cycle

Young Asian elephants are reported to stand soon after birth. After several months, the calf begins to eat grass and foliage. It stays under the supervision of its mother for several years, but begins making independent movements at 4 years. Full size is attained at about 17 years.

Both sexes may become sexually mature at as early as 9 years, but males usually do not reach sexual activity until 14-15 years, and even then they are not capable of the social dominance that usually is necessary for successful reproductive activity.

Breeding

When habitat conditions are favourable, female elephants may give birth to a calf every 2.5-4 years, otherwise every 5-8 years. Asian elephants give birth to one calf weighing 50-150kg.

Diet

More than two thirds of the day may be spent feeding on grasses, but large amounts of tree bark, roots, leaves and small stems are also eaten. Cultivated crops such as bananas, rice and sugarcane are favoured foods. Because they need to drink at least once a day, the species are always close to a source of fresh water.

Population & Distribution

The Asian elephant originally ranged from modern Iraq and Syria to the Yellow River in China, but is now found only from India to Vietnam, with a tiny besieged population in the extreme southwest of China's Yunnan Province. More than 100,000 Asian elephants may have existed at the start of the 20th century. The population is estimated to have fallen by at least 50% over the last 60-75 years.

Habitat

Major habitat type
Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests, Tropical and Subtropical Dry Broadleaf Forests

Biogeographic realm
Indo-Malayan

Range States
India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia (Peninsular and Borneo), Indonesia (Borneo and Sumatra)

What are the threats to Asian elephants?

The continually growing human population of tropical Asia has encroached upon the elephant's dense but dwindling forest habitat. About 20% of the world's human population lives in or near the present range of the Asian elephant.

Fierce competition for living space has resulted in human suffering, a dramatic loss of forest cover, and reduced Asian elephant numbers to between 25,600 and 32,750 animals in the wild.

Asian elephant populations are highly fragmented, with fewer than 10 populations comprising more than 1,000 individuals in a contiguous area, greatly decreasing their chances for survival.

Most of the national parks and reserves where elephants occur are too small to accommodate viable elephant populations. The conversion of forested areas to agricultural use also leads to serious elephant-human conflicts. In India, up to 300 people are killed by elephants each year.

Habitat loss and fragmentation

In the face of rapidly growing human populations, the Asian elephants' habitat is shrinking fast and wild elephant populations are mostly small, isolated, and unable to mingle as ancient migratory routes are cut off by human settlements.

Large development projects (such as dams, roads, mines and industrial complexes), plantations and spreading human settlements have fragmented what was once contiguous elephant habitat into small fragments.

A substantial proportion of the world's population live in or near the present range of the Asian elephant, which leads to elephant-human conflict. Incidents of elephants raiding crops and villages are on the rise. This causes losses to human property and, sometimes, human lives. Retaliation by villagers often results in killings of these elephants. Experts already consider such confrontations to be the leading cause of elephant deaths in Asia.

In some countries, the government provides compensation for crop damage or deaths caused by elephants, but there is still often strong political pressure on wildlife authorities to eliminate elephants near populated regions. As human populations increase, elephant-human conflicts are likely to rise.


Illegal hunting and trade

In Asian elephants, only males carry tusks and therefore poaching is aimed exclusively at males. Selective removal of tuskers for their ivory may lead to an increase in the proportion of tuskless males in the population.

Poaching of Asian elephants for ivory and meat remains a serious problem in many countries, especially in southern India (where 90% of the bulls are tuskers) and in north-east India where some people eat elephant meat. From 1995 to 1996, poaching of Asian elephants for hide, meat and ivory increased sharply. The illegal trade in live elephants, ivory and hides across the Thai-Myanmar border has also become a serious conservation problem.

A 1997 TRAFFIC report indicated that, seven years after international trade in ivory was banned, illegal commerce continued in the Far East, with South Korea and Taiwan, China being major markets. However, most of this illegal ivory appeared to come from African sources, rather than from Asian elephants.


Capture of wild elephants

The capture of wild elephants for domestic use has become a threat to wild populations where numbers have been seriously reduced. India, Vietnam, and Myanmar have banned capture in order to conserve their wild herds, but in Myanmar elephants are still caught each year for the timber industry or the illegal wildlife trade.

Unfortunately, crude capture methods have led to a high mortality level. Efforts are being made not only to improve safety but also to encourage captive breeding rather than taking from the wild. With nearly 30% of the remaining Asian elephants in captivity, attention needs to be paid to improved care and, where appropriate, reintroduction of individuals into the wild.

Genetic threat

There has been concern about the genetic effects of reduced numbers of male big tuskers. The danger arises when they are eliminated, and poachers find it worthwhile to kill immature males for their small tusks. When tuskers are killed, the number of males in a population decreases, resulting in skewed sex ratios. This may lead to inbreeding and eventually to high juvenile mortality and overall low breeding success. Removing large tuskers also reduces the probability that these longer-ranging loners will mate and exchange genes with females of different sub-populations.

Disease

In the early 1990s, an outbreak of haemorrhagic septicaemia, a cattle disease rare among elephants, was responsible for the deaths of several animals in Sri Lanka's Uda Walawe National Park in May 1994. In small herds of elephants, epidemics such as this could wipe out entire groups.
 / ©: WWF Indonesia
Diminishing habitat and increasing conflict - a poisoned elephant family in Riau Sumatra
© WWF Indonesia
The smuggling of live elephants, ivory and other elephant parts out of Myanmar and into ... / ©: Lek Chailert
The smuggling of live elephants, ivory and other elephant parts out of Myanmar and into neighbouring China and Thailand occurs in blatant contravention of national laws and CITES
© Lek Chailert
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf
The number of ivory seizures worldwide averages 92 cases a month, or three per day.
© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

Priority species

Elephants are a priority species. WWF treats priority species as one of the most ecologically, economically and/or culturally important species on our planet. And so we are working to ensure such species can live and thrive in their natural habitats.
What is left of an elephant "corridor" in TESSO NILO Palm oil plantation area.  Riau, ... / ©: Alain Compost / WWF-Canon
What is left of an elephant "corridor" in TESSO NILO Palm oil plantation area. Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia
© Alain Compost / WWF-Canon

What is WWF doing?

A species that needs space

Through the Asian Rhinos and Elephants Action Strategy (AREAS), WWF is working throughout the Asian elephant range to conserve the remaining populations and their habitats.

Because these large animals need a lot of space to survive, WWF considers the Asian elephant a 'flagship' species, whose conservation would help maintain biological diversity and ecological integrity over extensive areas.

How you can help

  • Don't buy ivory products. Illegal trade in elephant ivory is a continuing problem, posing one of the greatest threats to elephants today.
     
  • Adopt an elephant: WWF-US & International | WWF-UK | WWF-Canada
     
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Virtual Gifts

Virtual Gifts / ©: WWF

Did you know?

    • Elephants need to eat an average of 150kg per day to survive.
    • Elephant herds follow ancient seasonal migration routes. It is the task of the eldest elephant to lead the herd along these routes.
    • Asian elephants are almost completely hairless.

Infographic

  •  The WWF Wildlife Crime Scorecard report selects 23 range, transit and consumer countries from Asia and Africa facing the highest levels of illegal trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts.

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