Indian elephant

Distributed from India, where it occurs in largest numbers, to Borneo, where only small vestigial populations persist, the Indian elephant plays an important ecological and cultural role in Asia.
 / ©: WWF-International
© WWF-International
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Indian elephant (Elephus Maximus) with mahout in Rapti river, Chitwan National Park, Nepal
© naturepl.com/Andrew Parkinson / WWF

Key Facts

  • Common Name

    Indian elephant, Asian elephant ; Eléphant d'Inde (Fr); Elefante Asiático (Sp)

  • Scientific Name

    Elephas maximus indicus

  • Population

    20,000 - 25,000

  • Geographic Location

    South Asia, eastern Asia

Infographic

 / ©: WWF-India
 

Background

This information has been reviewed.

Elephants are an important cultural icon in India. According to Indian mythology, the gods (deva) and the demons (asura) churned the oceans in a search for the elixir of life - 'amrit' (nectar) - so that they would become immortal. As they did so, the 'navratnas' (nine jewels) surfaced, one of which was the elephant.

Consequently, the elephant is extremely valuable, and therefore must be treasured, preserved and protected, just as a jewel would be.

Physical Description

Size
The Indian elephant is up to 6.4m in length and around 2-3.5m in height.

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

Habitat & Ecology
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 and can follow their mother in her daily routine after a few days.  It stays under supervision of its mother for several years, but begins making independent movements at 4 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.

Breeding
When the 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 50-150 kg.

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
India has by far the largest remaining populations of Indian elephant (estimated at around 57% of the total). Small populations of the subspecies are also found on the Andaman Islands and in Borneo. There are four populations and ten sub populations of the mainland Indian elephant, distributed in the South, Central, Northwest and Northeast regions in India.

  • The southern population is distributed in the forests of Western and Eastern Ghats in the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
  • The north western population spans the Terai forest regions of Uttar Pradesh along the foothills of Himalayas.
  • The north-eastern population is found at the Himalayan foothills of Bhutan and north -west Bengal eastwards into the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya.

Habitat

Biogeographic realm
Indo-Malayan

Range States
Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, India, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Viet Nam

Geographical Location
South Asia, eastern Asia

Ecological Region
Eastern Deccan Plateau Moist Forests, Chhota-Nagpur Dry Forests, Kayah-Karen / Tenasserim Moist Forests, Northeast Borneo, Peninsular Malaysian Lowland and Mountain Forests, Cardamom Mountains Moist Forests, Indochina Dry Forests, Annamite Range Moist Forests, Mekong River, Northern Indochina Subtropical Moist Forests, Salween River , Southwestern Ghats Moist Forests.

What are the main threats?

The main threat facing Indian elephants, like all Asian elephants is loss of habitat and the resulting human-elephant conflict.

In south Asia, it is the quest for land by an ever increasing human population that causes many illegal encroachments in elephant habitat, thus causing habitat loss and fragmentation. In some cases, it is development activities, such as roads, railway tracks, in crucial corridor areas that fragment the habitat.
A herd leaves the Tarajulie Tea Estate, where they had taken up residence for several days, after ... / ©: WWF-Canon / Jan Vertefeuille
A herd leaves the Tarajulie Tea Estate, where they had taken up residence for several days, after being driven out by a WWF-sponsored elephant drive - part of an effort to reduce human-elephant conflict in a non-lethal manner.
© WWF-Canon / Jan Vertefeuille

What is WWF doing?

WWF's efforts for elephants in South Asia include limiting human impacts on elephant populations in the Western Terai, India, while activities carried out in some of the priority landscapes in the south Asia like Nilgiris-Eastern Ghats, Terai Arc and North Bank landscapes aim to prevent further habitat loss and, most importantly, lower anger levels against elephants.

Through the Asian Rhinos and Elephants Action Strategy (AREAS), WWF invests each year into anti-poaching operations, and the programme is currently helping to develop an anti-poaching strategy.
 / ©: TRAFFIC
TRAFFIC logo - the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network
© TRAFFIC

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Did you know?

    • When grasses are too short to be picked up with its trunk, the elephant scrapes the ground until a pile is formed, then sweeps it into the mouth with the "fingers" of the trunk.
    • In many places across India, elephants are worshipped as Lord Ganesha.

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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