Elephants have been revered for centuries in Asia, playing an important role in the continent's culture and religion. They are also play a critical role in maintaining the region's forests. But their habitat is shrinking and Asian elephants are now endangered.
© Martin HARVEY / WWF
They are smaller than African elephants and have proportionally smaller ears, which they keep in constant motion in order to cool themselves. They also have a single 'finger' on the upper lip of their trunks as opposed to African elephants, which have a second one on the lower tip.
Their skin ranges from dark grey to brown, with patches of pink on the forehead, the ears, the base of the trunk and the chest.
A significant number of male Asian elephants are tuskless. The percentage of males with ivory varies from just 5% in Sri Lanka to aound 90% in southern India - possibly reflecting the intensity of past ivory hunting.
SubspeciesThere are three subspecies of Asian elephant – the Indian, Sumatran and Sri Lankan. The Indian has the widest range and accounts for the majority of the remaining elephants on the continent. The Sri Lankan is physically the largest of the subspecies, and also the darkest in colour. The Sumatran is the smallest.
However, some studies suggest that Borneo pygmy elephants could be a separate subspecies. If so, they would be the smallest. They are also more rotund and have babyish faces, larger ears, and longer tails that almost reach the ground. They are appear to be less aggressive than other Asian elephants.
Social StructureFemale elephants are more social than males. They form herds of related females that are led by the oldest female, the 'matriarch'. Males usually live alone but sometimes form small groups with other males.
Life CycleWhen habitat conditions are favourable, female elephants may give birth to a calf every 2.5-4 years. Each calf weighs between 50-150kg.
After several months, the calf begins to eat grass and foliage. However, it stays under the supervision of its mother for several years, starting to make its first independent moves when it is around 4 years old.
Both males and females may become sexually mature as early as 9, but males do not usually start sexual activity until they are 14 or 15. And even then they are not capable of the social dominance that is usually necessary for successful reproductive activity, especially as most elephants only reach their full size at about 17 years of age.
DietElephants need to eat an average of 150 kg per day to survive. They can spend more than two thirds of each day feeding on grasses. But they also devour large amounts of bark, roots, leaves and stems. Cultivated crops such as bananas, rice and sugarcane are also favoured foods - sometimes bringing them into conflict with humans.
They need to drink at least once a day so they are always close to a source of fresh water.
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© WWF Greater Mekong
Asian elephant; Elephant d'Asie (Fr); Elefante Asiàtico (Sp)
Endangered; CITES Appendix I
40,000 - 50,000
© WWF / Christy Williams
Population & DistributionMore than 100,000 Asian elephants may have existed at the start of the 20th century, but numbers have fallen by at least 50% over the last three generations, and they are still in decline today.
Elephants used to roam across most of Asia, but now they’re restricted to just 15% of their original range. The Indian elephant has the largest range, while the Sri Lankan is restricted to a few parts of the island. Sumatran elephants were once widespread on Sumatra, but they have lost 70% of their habitat and only survive in fragmented populations.
HabitatTropical and subtropical moist and dry broadleaf forests
India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia
ThreatsHabitat loss and fragmentation
Asia is the world’s most densely populated continent and a huge percentage of the elephants' former range has already been lost. And as the human population continues to grow, the species' remaining habitat is shrinking fast.
Large development projects (such as dams, roads, and mines), agricultural plantations and expanding human settlements have also fragmented elephant habitat. Wild elephant populations are now mostly small, isolated and unable to mingle as ancient migratory routes are cut off by human settlements.
A substantial proportion of the world's human population live in or near the elephant's current range. And pressure is growing as Asia's population keeps rising and as more habitat is transformed into farmland. Elephants and people are now coming into contact more often – increasing the likelihood of human-wildlife conflicts.
Elephants sometimes raid farmers’ fields and damage their crops, which they rely on for their livelihoods. And elephants sometimes kill people. As a result, farmers occassionally kill elephants to protect their fields and families. Experts believe that these confrontations are now 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 rather than to try to avoid conflicts.
Poaching and capture
Elephant poaching is not as severe a threat as it is in Africa, but Asian elephants are still killed for their tusks, meat and skin. They’re also taken from the wild for the live elephant trade – primarily going to Thailand for the tourism industry.
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 methods but also to encourage captive breeding rather than taking from the wild.
What is WWF doing?
We're working with governments and local communities to reduce conflict between people and elephants. And we’re influencing policy and legislation to benefit elephant conservation.
WWF is also tackling poaching by working with the authorities to improve the enforcement of laws on the illegal trade in elephants and their parts. And collaborating with TRAFFIC to reduce demand for ivory in consumer markets - all part of the global Wildlife Crime Initiative.
And we’re helping improve the livelihoods of people living alongside elephants, through activities that link economic development with elephant conservation. That way, people can see the benefits of keeping elephants alive, and their habitat intact, so they’ll want to conserve rather than harm this magnificent animal.
How you can help
Don't buy ivory products. Illegal trafficking in ivory poses one of the greatest threats to elephants today.
Adopt an elephant: WWF-US & International | WWF-UK | WWF-Canada
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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.
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.
TRAFFIC is a joint programme of WWF and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) that monitors the global wildlife trade. TRAFFIC also works in close co-operation with CITES.