All Asian elephants are currently classified as a single species, Elephas maximus. For details on subspecies, visit the IUCN page.
Asian elephants are smaller than their African savannah relatives and have many other physical features that distinguish them. The ears are smaller and the back is more rounded so that the crown of the head is the highest point of the body. The trunk tip has just one 'finger' rather than two. Females are referred to as 'cows' males are referred to as 'bulls' and immature animals are known as 'calves'. Females do not have tusks, while males may or may not exhibit tusks. Both sexes can instead have miniaturized incisors, which are referred to as 'tushes' which they use to peel bark off trees.
Asian elephants can live as many as 80 years in captivity, and in some wild populations may live 60 years or more. Females have a gestation time of 20-22 months, which means they reproduce slowly. Optimally, females can have a calf every 3-4 years, but more typically it may take 6 years or more [read more].
Distribution & Status
The Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) is the only living species of the genus Elephas and is distributed in Southeast Asia from India in the west to Borneo in the east. The elephants of Sumatra may be especially unique. The Asian elephant is listed as Endangered under the IUCN Red List because of a population size reduction inferred to be at least 50% over the last three generations, based on a reduction in its area of occupancy and the quality of its habitat. A recent estimate for the global population size of the Asian Elephant was 41,410–52,345 animals, but for many areas this is just a crude guess. In some countries such as Vietnam, populations may be down to double digits.
Elephants are an integral part of cultures throughout Asia, serving both in religious symbolism as well as day-to-day labor for more than 5000 years! That's a time span comparable to when horses were first domesticated. But unlike horses, Asian elephants have never truly been "domesticated," in the sense that they have not been bred in captivity over multiple generations by humans to serve our needs. Though today there are many efforts to try to breed elephants in captivity, they do not readily do so. While capture from the wild is now illegal, the vast majority of elephants in captivity, even today, were captured from the wild - usually at a very young age. Or else are the offspring of captive females (e.g. working at timber camps) who mated with wild bulls. Because elephants reproduce so slowly, the capture of too many calves from the wild for labor, tourism or other purposes can in fact threaten the persistence of some wild populations. While captive elephants can serve a valuable role in educating people - especially children - about elephants and their world, as well as provide unique research opportunities, ultimately it's important to remember that the future of elephants depends on securing the last remaining WILD populations.
Asian elephants are large-brained, and quite social. As with many mammals, females and young form herds while males separate from these herds during their teenage years to form their own parallel societies. Like their cousins, the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), it's likely that the female herds typically consist of related individuals and herds may occasionally join up and mingle with one another. But unlike the African elephant, where the eldest female or 'matriarch' manages a very close-knit family that usually travels everywhere together, female Asian elephants tend to be very flexible and dynamic in their relationships over time [read more].
Mature bulls enter a period known as 'musth' which is similar to rutt in deer, which follows an annual cycle the timing of which is unique to each male. During this period they exhibit streaks of liquid from their temples, dribble urine and give off a strong odor detectable over very long distances. Competition for females is fierce and although males can also try to reproduce when not in musth, the heightened aggression of musth males gives them an edge in winning. Surprisingly, in those populations containing a mixture of males with and without tusks, there seems to be no clear advantage to having these formidable weapons when it comes to winning contests, with body size and musth largely determining outcomes.
Elephants communicate using sound and scent. African elephants are also very sensitive to seismic cues, though similar research on Asian elephants is lacking. They produce a number of distinct vocalization types, ranging from very low frequency 'growls' and 'rumbles,' which may contain infrasonic components (below our hearing range), as well as high-pitched squeaks, squeals and trumpets. A male captive elephant named Koshik has even been demonstrated to imitate several words of Korean, an extremely rare ability among mammals. Asian elephants show various aspects of higher cognition, such as self-recognition, insightful problem solving, cooperation, and perhaps even reassurance and empathy. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of the complex social lives of this shy and mysterious species.
Hedges S, Fisher K & Rose R (2008) Range-wide Mapping Workshop for Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus). Cambodia. Report to USFWS.