Geographical Range India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia
Habitat Scrub forests, adjoining grasslands, jungles where remaining
Scientific Name Elephas maximus
Conservation Status Endangered

Elephants and Us

Asian elephants have long been important to humans. Whether it's their key role in the Hindu religion and culture, their longstanding use as beasts of burden, their slaughter for the ivory trade, or their current conflicts with the exploding human population -- elephants have always fascinated us.

Elephants have been domesticated in Asia for centuries, bred to move people and cargo. In the past, wealthy Indians and royalty owned elephants, riding on their elaborately decorated backs on hunting trips into the bush. Because they are intelligent and docile (when well treated), they have been widely used in the lumber industry to haul heavy items such as teak logs.

An Imposing Body Plan

Elephants are the largest living animals on land, they have the biggest brains in the animal kingdom and form close, long-lasting social bonds. No wonder they capture our imaginations.

Even though Asian elephants are smaller than their African cousins, they still get up to 7-12 feet tall and weigh between 6,600 and 11,000 pounds. (The massive skull makes up 12 to 25 percent of their body weight!) Their broad feet distribute their bulk so well that elephants hardly leave any tracks when they walk.

Because of their large size, elephants can't reach the ground with their mouth. Natural selection solved this problem over the millennia by lengthening the animals' upper lip and nose into a trunk. The trunk is not only used for feeding, but for a host of other behaviors, including drinking, greeting, caressing, fighting, squirting water and throwing dust.

The well-known tusks of elephants are actually two enlarged upper teeth that grow throughout their lives. In Asian elephants, the larger tusks of the males protrude from their mouth, while the females' tusks (called "tushes") are so small they don't extend beyond the lip. The molars fall out at the front when they're worn, and replacement teeth move forward as the elephant ages.

The skin of an elephant is thick and dry, with short, stiff hairs. The skin color varies from gray to brown (though the true color is often masked by the color of the soil where they live, since they constantly throw dirt over their back as a sunscreen and insect repellent.)

A Hearty Appetite, a Big Thirst

Asian elephants eat a varied diet of grasses, fruit, vegetables, bark, roots, leaves and stems. It takes a lot of food to sustain their big bodies: an adult eats between 165 and 330 pounds of food in one day, though less than half of this is well digested.

Unfortunately for the elephants, they also have craving for crops like cereal grasses, bananas, and sugar cane. As a result, the animals often become pests in farm regions. They risk getting shot when they manage to evade farmers' fences, moats and other defenses.

Elephants don't feed for more than a few days in any one place. And since they drink at least once a day, they don't wander far away from a water source. Elephants' thirst for water is nearly as big as their appetite for food: they drink 20 to 40 gallons of water every day! (By the way, they drink by sucking water into their trunk, then pouring it into their mouths.)

Keeping in Touch

Although Asian elephants' ears are smaller than those of African elephants, both types have very good hearing. Their sense of smell is also excellent (which you might expect from an animal with such a long nose)! Smell plays a large role in their social life, and in their ability to detect predators.

The sense of touch is also highly developed in elephants. The trunk has fine hairs at the tip that make it extremely sensitive. Elephants often touch each other with their trunk.

Another way that elephants maintain close social bonds is with the sounds they produce. The most common sound is a low growl (what some people call a "tummy rumble"), which they use to maintain contact with each other. This growl can be heard for more than a half-mile.

Elephants also communicate via low-frequency "infrasound," below the range of human hearing. Depending on weather and atmospheric conditions, scientists think these sounds may carry for distances of more than 100 miles! Long-distance calling is used in a number of situations, such as in times of distress. And it is apparently crucial to courtship and mating, since females use it to call males when they're ready to breed.

That's Some Baby!

It's no small matter bringing a baby Asian elephant into the world! First, the mother carries a baby nearly 22 months - the longest pregnancy of any land animal. Then there's the size of the calf - it weighs between 250 and 350 pounds at birth. Ouch!

During a birth, other females in the herd often act as "midwives," clustering around the new baby, even helping it to its feet. A newborn elephant can stand shortly after birth. It will nurse (with its mouth, not its trunk) between two to four years. Youngsters begin eating some grass at several months old; solid food becomes an increasing part of their diet as they get older.

A young elephant takes a long time to mature, but the job of raising it doesn't just belong to its mother: the entire herd gets into the act. When a potential predator such as a lion or tiger threatens a calf, the adults form a defensive circle around it to protect the baby. In addition, one or two juvenile females in the herd often act as "babysitters" and look after the youngster.

Female calves remain in a herd with their other female relatives throughout their lives. Males leave their herd when they reach puberty.

The Herd Mentality

Elephants are social creatures. They live in groups (often the same groups for their entire lives) and display complex social behavior. The basic group structure is a herd of two to 20 females and their offspring, averaging seven animals per herd. The group is led by a "matriarch," usually the oldest and most experienced female in the herd. She coordinates the elephants' movements in search of food and water.

After males reach puberty, they travel alone or in temporary male groups.

Shapers of their World

Elephants play such a vital role in their ecosystem that they are known as a "keystone" species. This means they modify their habitat in ways that affect a host of plant and animal species.

Asian elephants provide water for other types of animals by digging water holes in dry seasons (they have an amazing ability to locate underground water). Their movements carve "roads" through the bush, used by many other animal species, including humans. They also create clearings in the forest by pulling down trees to get to the leaves. Elephants also disperse the seeds of fruit trees by depositing them in their dung during their travels.

On the Brink of Extinction

Asian elephants are in trouble today more than ever before. They've been hunted for the past 150 years for their tusks, which supply the profitable but destructive ivory trade. As if that weren't enough, they are now losing their land to the increasing human population throughout Asia. Across much of the elephants' range, their forest and grassland habitat is being transformed into farmland and villages. Adding to the problem is the increasing commercial demand for forest-derived products such as coffee, tea, rubber, and hardwoods.

Only about 35,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants survive today in fragmented populations - a small fraction of the numbers that used to range throughout most of Asia. The species faces a real risk of becoming extinct in the wild. Many groups and governments are working to help Asian elephants: an international agreement bans the trade in elephant products. Zoos and other conservation organizations are also doing what they can (see side story).

You can also help by refusing to buy products made from ivory or other elephant parts, and by making sure the forest products you purchase come from sustainable producers.

Fun Facts

  • An elephant's trunk can get very heavy, so it's not uncommon to see an elephant resting its trunk over a tusk!
  • At full charge, an elephant can run over 30 miles an hour.
  • The average lifespan of an elephant in the wild and in zoos is 45 years.
  • Contrary to popular belief, elephants don't really make "graveyards" for the dead members of their family. But they do exhibit unexplained behaviors towards elephant carcasses and bones, carrying them, pushing them for hours, etc. Some explain it as grief, but scientists don't know.

Class: Mammalia
Order: Proboscidea
Family: Elephantidae