- the destruction of their habitat
- poachers hunting elephant for their ivory tusks
- usually to one calf at a time
- twinning occurs in roughly one in 100 births
- Birth weight is around 120 kg
Parts of India and Southeast Asia, including Sumatra and Borneo. Asian elephants were formerly widely distributed south of the Himalayas, throughout Southeast Asia, and in China as far north as the Yangtze River.
Biogeographic Regions: oriental (Native )
Asian elephants still occur in isolated populations in 13 states, with a very approximate total range area of 486,800 km² (Sukumar 2003; but see Blake and Hedges 2004). The species occurs in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in South Asia and Cambodia, China, Indonesia (Kalimantan and Sumatra) Lao PDR, Malaysia (Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah), Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam in South-east Asia. Feral populations occur on some of the Andaman Islands (India).
The elephants of Borneo were believed to be feral descendants of elephants introduced in the 14th–19th centuries (Shoshani and Eisenberg, 1982; Cranbrook et al., 2008); however, recent genetic evidence suggests they are indigenous to the island (Fernando et al., 2003; but see Cranbrook et al., 2008).
The species was once found throughout Sri Lanka, but today elephants are restricted mostly to the lowlands in the dry zone where they are still fairly widespread in north, south, east, north-western, north-central and south-eastern Sri Lanka; but with the exceptions of small remnant populations in the Peak Wilderness Area and Sinharaja Area, elephants are absent from the wet zone of the country. The species continues to lose range to development activities throughout the island.
Once widespread in India, the species is now restricted to four general areas: northeastern India, central India, northwestern India, and southern India. In northeastern India, the elephant range extends from the eastern border of Nepal in northern West Bengal through western Assam along the Himalaya foothills as far as the Mishmi Hills. From here it extends into eastern Arunachal Pradesh, the plains of upper Assam, and the foothills of Nagaland. Further west, it extends to the Garo Hills of Meghalaya through the Khasi Hills, to parts of the lower Brahmaputra plains and Karbi Plateau. Elsewhere in the south in Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, and the Barak valley districts of Assam, isolated herds occur (Choudhury, 1999). In central India, highly fragmented elephant populations are found in the States of Orissa, Jharkhand, and the southern part of West Bengal, with some animals wandering into Chattisgarh. In north-western India, the species occurs in six fragmented populations at the foot of the Himalayas in Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh, ranging from Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in Bahraich Forest Division in the east, to the Yamuna River in the west. In southern India, elephants occur in the hilly terrain of the Western Ghats and in parts of the Eastern Ghats in the states of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and, relatively recently, Andhra Pradesh. There are eight main populations in southern India, each fragmented from the others: northern Karnataka; the crestline of Karnataka–Western Ghats; Bhadra–Malnad; Brahmagiri–Nilgiris–Eastern Ghats; Nilambur–Silent Valley–Coimbatore; Anamalais–Parambikulam; Periyar–Srivilliputhur; and Agasthyamalais.
In Nepal, elephants were once widespread in the lowland Terai, but are now restricted to a few protected areas along the border with India: Royal Chitwan National Park, Parsa Wildlife Reserve, Royal Bardia National Park, and Royal Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, and their environs. There is some movement of animals between these protected areas and between Bardia National Park and the adjacent parts of India.
In Bhutan, all the existing elephant populations are found along the border with India. They are reported from Royal Manas National Park, Namgyal Wangchuk Wildlife Sanctuary, Phipsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Reserve Forests such as Khaling Wildlife Sanctuary, Dungsum, and Mochu. In the past, elephants made seasonal migrations from Bhutan to the grasslands of India during the wetter summer months of May to October, returning to their winter range in Bhutan from November. Now these movements are restricted as a result of loss of habitat on the Indian side and fragmentation of habitat on the Bhutan side.
In Bangladesh, the species was once widespread, but today it is largely restricted to areas that are relatively less accessible to humans, mainly Chittagong and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the southeast. In addition, some animals periodically visit the New Samanbag area of Maulvi Bazar District under the Sylhet Forest Division in the north-east of the country, coming from the neighbouring Indian states of Tripura, Meghalaya, and Assam.
The Asian elephant has a wide, but highly fragmented, distribution in Myanmar. The five main areas of elephant abundance are: the Northern Hill Ranges, the Western Hill Ranges, Pegu Yoma (central Myanmar), Tenasserim Yoma (in the south, bordering Thailand), and Shan State or eastern Yoma.
In Thailand, the species occurs mainly in the mountains along the border with Myanmar, with smaller fragmented populations occurring in the peninsula in the south (in several forest complexes, south to the border with Malaysia); in the northeast (in the Dong Phaya Yen-Khao Yai forest complex, including Khao Yai National Park, and the Phu Khieo-Nam Nao forest complex); and in the east (in a forest complex composing the Khao Ang Runai Wildlife Sanctuary, Khao Soi Dao Wildlife Sanctuary, Khao Khitchakut National Park, and Khao Cha Mao National Park).
In Cambodia, elephants are primarily found in the mountains of the south-west and in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri Provinces. Recent surveys in Keo Sema District (Mondulkiri Province) suggest that important numbers may remain in that area (WCS unpubl. data). Elsewhere, Asian elephants persist in Cambodia in only small, scattered populations (Duckworth and Hedges, 1998).
In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, elephants remain widely but very patchily distributed in forested areas, both in the highlands and lowlands. Two important and likely viable populations are known, one in Xaignaboli Province west of the Mekong and one on the Nakai Plateau. Other potentially important elephant populations occur in Phou Phanang and Phou Khao Khoay in Vientiane Province; Phou Xang He in Savannakhet Province; Dong Ampham and Dong Khanthung, including Xe Pian, close to Cambodian border; and Nam Et, Nam Xam, Phou Dendin, and Nam Ha in the north, close to the Viet Namese and Chinese borders.
In Viet Nam, only a small population persists now. In the northern part of the country there are no elephants left, barring occasional wanderers into Son La from Lao PDR. In the central and southern parts of the country, very small isolated populations remain in Dak Lak, Nghe An, Quang Nam, Dong Nai, and Ha Tinh Provinces.
In China, Asian elephants once ranged widely over much of southern China, including the Fujiang, Guangdong, and Guangxi Provinces (Smith and MacKinnon, in press). The species was extirpated in southern Fujiang and northern Guangdong during the 12th century, but evidence indicates persistence in Guanxi into the 17th century (Smith and MacKinnon, in press). All that now remains of this once widespread elephant population in China is the remnant in Yunnan where the species survives in three prefectures: Xishuangbanna, Simao, and Lincang.
In Peninsular Malaysia, the species is still widely distributed in the interior of the country in the following States: Pahang (which probably has the largest population), Perak, Johor, Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, and Negeri Sembilan (where very few animals remain).
On Borneo, elephants only occur in the lowlands of the northeastern part of the island in the Malaysian State of Sabah and adjacent parts of Kalimantan (Indonesia). In Sabah, they occur in forested areas in the south, centre, and east of the State in the following Districts: Kinabatangan, Sandakan, Beluran, Lahad Datu, Tawau, and Pensiangan. In Kalimantan, elephants occur only in the Upper Sembakung River in Tindung District. The origin of the elephants of Borneo remains unclear and the subject of debate. Due to the limited distribution of the island’s elephant population it is argued by some that the species was not indigenous, but descended from imported captive elephants (Medway 1977; Cranbrook et al., 2008). However, others argues that while captive elephants have undoubtedly been brought to Borneo, genetic analyses have shown that the elephants found on Borneo are genetically distinct, with molecular divergence indicating a Pleistocene colonization and subsequent isolation (Fernando et al., 2003)
On Sumatra (in Indonesia), the elephant was once widespread, but now survives only in highly fragmented populations. In the mid-1980s, 44 discrete elephant populations were known to exist in Sumatra’s eight provinces, 12 of these were in Lampung Province (Blouch and Haryanto, 1984; Blouch and Simbolon, 1985). However, by 2003, only three of Lampung’s 12 populations were extant (Hedges et al., 2005). An unknown number of Sumatra’s other elephant populations remain (Blake and Hedges, 2004), and those that do are threatened by habitat loss, poaching, and as a result of conflict with humans (Santiapillai and Jackson, 1990; Hedges et al., 2005). Nevertheless, the island is thought to hold some of the most significant populations outside of India. For example, recent surveys in Lampung Province’s two national parks, Bukit Barisan Selatan and Way Kambas, produced population estimates of 498 (95% CI=[373, 666]) and 180 (95% CI=[144, 225]) elephants, respectively (Hedges et al., 2005). Bukit Barisan Selatan NP is therefore a critically important area for Asian elephant conservation. The challenge now is to protect these populations from further habitat loss and poaching.
The current distribution of the Asian elephant lies in the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia. The principal populations are in:
- Indonesia (Sumatra)
- Sri Lanka
- Small populations (fewer than 500 individuals) in Bangladesh, Bhutan, southwest China, Indonesia (Kalimantan) and Nepal.
South-central and southeastern Asia
Head and body length is 550 to 640 cm and shoulder height is 250 to 300 cm. The skin is thick and dry, and the few hairs are stiff. Skin color varies from grey to brown. In contrast to African elephants, Asian elephants have ears that are much smaller, the back is not as sloping, the head rather than the shoulders is the highest part of the body, the trunk has a single finger-like projection rather than two, and the hind foot has 4 nails rather than 3. The cylindrical feet consist of reduced phalanges resting on a pad of elastic tissue. The cerebral hemisphere is quite convoluted, resembling that of humans and dolphins. The elephant's teeth are unique. They have a limited number of very large teeth that move forward in the mouth as the animal ages; as the front teeth are worn away with use they are replaced from behind. If an elephant lives long enough to have used up all of its teeth it then starves to death. In males, a pair of incisors is elongated (growing 17 cm per year throughout the animal's life) into tusks. Unlike African elephant females, Asian females do not bear tusks.
Range mass: 3000 to 5000 kg.
Range length: 550 to 640 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger; ornamentation
Average basal metabolic rate: 2336.5 W.
Asian elephants mainly use scrub forest, although their habitat can vary. They can be found in the jungle, but generally on the edge where open, grassy areas are accessible. They prefer areas that combine grass, low woody plants, and forest. Elephants rarely forage in one area for more than a few days in a row.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest ; scrub forest
Other Habitat Features: agricultural
Habitat and Ecology
Elephants range over large areas and home ranges in excess of 600 km² have been recorded for females in south India (Baskaran et al., 1995). In north India, female home ranges of 184–326 km² and male home ranges of 188–407 km² have been recorded (Williams, 2002). Smaller home range sizes, 30–160 km² for females and 53–345 km² for males, have been recorded in Sri Lanka (Fernando et al., 2005). Given their requirements for large areas, elephants are regarded as an “umbrella species” because their conservation will also protect a large number of other species occupying the same area. They are also a premier “flagship species” and are sometimes regarded as a “keystone species” because of their important ecological role and impact on the environment.
The life span of Asian elephants is 60 to 70 years, and males reach sexual maturity at between 10–15 years of age; females usually first give birth in years 15 or 16 (Shoshani and Eisenberg, 1982).
Although occupying exclusively tropical and subtropical zones, Asian elephants live in a wide range of habitats, including:
- Wet evergreen forest
- Montane evergreen forest and grassland
- Semi-evergreen forest
- Moist deciduous forest
- Dry deciduous forest
- Savanna (mixed woodland and grassland mosaic)
- Bamboo forest
- Dry scrub
- Swampy floodplain grassland
Role in ecosystems
Elephants play a significant role in ecosystems. Their massive dung production recycles nutrients back into the soil. They can disperse seeds and fruits over wide distances.Their massive food consumption and habit of destroying trees has led to debate about their role in changing their own environment. It is likely that such phenomena originally formed part of a natural cycle, with long-term balance between different habitats. If a high number of elephants in one area caused a reduction in the tree density, either the elephant population would limit its own reproduction, or the animals would migrate to another area, allowing regeneration of woodland. For many areas of Asia even today, this process still operates and vegetation regeneration seems to keep pace with elephant feeding. The problem is less severe than for African savannah elephants, especially those constrained within the boundaries of reserves.
These elephants eat a wide variety of species of vegetation. They prefer grasses, but they also consume bark, roots, leaves, and stems of trees, vines, and shrubs. Most of an adult's activities involve moving toward and eating food. They eat in the morning, evening, and night but rest during the hottest part of the day. An average day's intake is 150 kg of vegetation, of which only about 44% is actually digested (with the aid of symbiotic gut bacteria). Elephants eat long grasses by plucking a "handful" with their trunk and putting the bundle in their mouth. To eat short grasses, they kick up a pile of dirt with their feet and sweep the grass into their mouth, again with the end of their trunk. Shrubs are eaten by breaking off twigs with the trunk and inserting them into the mouth. To eat the bark off larger branches, they hold the branch with their trunk and rotate it while scraping off the bark with their teeth - similar to the way people eat corn on the cob. Elephants also drink at least once a day (140 liters of water may be consumed in just one day) and so are never very far from a water supply.
Plant Foods: leaves; roots and tubers; wood, bark, or stems
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore , Lignivore)
When a potential predator such as a lion or tiger threatens a calf, the adults form a defensive circle with the calf in the middle. Adult elephants are probably not susceptible to predation by any species other than humans.
Life History and Behavior
Elephants use their tusks for a variety of purposes: to dig for water, remove bark from trees, maneuver fallen trees and branches, mark trees, rest their trunk on, fight with, and, in domestic animals, for various kinds of work. Elephants are left or right tusked, just as humans are left or right handed. Their trunks, which are formed by the combination of the elongated nose and upper lip, are also very useful. At the tip is a single, finger-like extension that is very sensitive and can be used for precise manipulation of objects. Trunks are used in eating, drinking, smelling and breathing, touching, vocalizing, washing, dusting (throwing dirt onto the back, possibly as a way of deterring insects), and fighting. The senses of touch and hearing are acute, but eyesight is somewhat poor. Young elephants follow their mothers or older sisters by holding on to their tails. When in danger, elephants run with their tails held up, which may signal the danger to the other members of the herd.
Communication Channels: tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Other Communication Modes: pheromones ; vibrations
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; vibrations ; chemical
- Elephant society has a structure that has been termed matriarchal.
- The core element is the family unit, a group of 2-25 individuals, comprising related adult females and their young.
- Females within the family unit are closely bonded for life.
By contrast, adult males tend to be solitary, or may form temporary associations of two or three unrelated bulls. They leave the family of their birth at 12-15 years of age and after that time, although they may frequently associate with female groups for feeding or mating, they have no long term bonds with them, or with each other.
Within the female groups, a few older individuals, and in particular the lead individual, termed the matriarch, are instrumental in deciding the group’s pattern of movement, in defending the group against danger, and in monitoring and responding to other approaching elephants. Calves, especially when very young, stay close to their mother, but all females in the group will aid with in their upbringing. At the approach of a predator, adult females wheel round to face the source of danger, protecting the calves that stay close behind. The members of the family unit may separate for short intervals during the day, but will soon regroup. Family units also form looser associations, or “bond groups”, with more distantly related families. These come together particularly during migration, but even then, individual family groups maintain their integrity within the larger mass of animals.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals with a complex repertoire of social interactions. Within the family group, individuals of all ages greet, and maintain bonding, by touching their trunk tips to each other’s bodies, rubbing together, and with sound communication and scent. In calves, play is a dominant behaviour. They mock charge, chase each other or wrestle with their trunks. Males, from an early age, engage in mock sparring matches. They are also more independent of their mothers than females, a trend that increases as they get older.
There is a dominance hierarchy among bulls, generally related to their age, size, and power. If two bulls of roughly equal size meet, they assess each other through intertwining trunks, pushing and pulling, or lightly engaging their tusks. Rarely, sparring may lead to a full-scale fight, sometimes (but not always) for access to an oestrus female. The combatants will charge each other with ears outstretched, or cross tusks and attempt to twist each other off-balance, all accompanied by loud vocalisations. Each tries ultimately to gore the other with his tusks, sometimes resulting in fatal wounds by deep penetration of the head or chest. Broken tusks may result from twisting with the full body weight. The fight will end either by withdrawal of the weaker animal, or with death.
Male elephants enter a periodic state called ‘musth’. The temporal gland, located on the side of the head between the ear and the eye, produces a dark fluid (temporin) with a strong musky odour. Musth males also intermittently dribble urine. A male elephant generally enters musth once a year, for a period of anything up to a month, the time of year varying with the animal. Musth bulls have heightened levels of testosterone and are very aggressive, especially toward other bulls. Musth is associated with heightened sexual activity, although non-musth bulls also mate. Females also have a temporal gland, which can occasionally be seen to ooze secretion, and elephants have been observed rubbing their cheeks against trees, so temporin may have broader communication functions.
Elephants have relatively poor vision, but highly developed senses of taste and smell. They obtain chemical cues by using their trunks to touch each other’s genitals, mouths, temporal glands, and urine. They also often lift their trunks and rotate the open tips, testing the air for the scent of other animals in the vicinity. It is very likely that they can identify different individual elephants from these cues.
Elephants also have acute hearing and communicate through a wide variety of vocalisations. Research has focussed on African elephants, although the situation in Asian elephants is probably similar. At least 25 different calls, audible to the human ear, have been identified, 15 of them in a low-frequency group termed rumbles. Some of them are known to be associated with different events such as musth in a bull and oestrus or copulation in a female. In addition, a range of infrasound vocalisations extends down to 5 Hz, well below the frequency of human hearing. Low-frequency sound is less subject to environmental attenuation, and elephant rumbles and infrasound are audible to other elephants over a range of up to 5 km. It has also been suggested that elephants may communicate over even longer distances as they stamp their feet on the ground, but this theory remains to be tested.
Death, injury, disease
An elephant can live to around 60 years; many die before this age, from disease, injury, starvation, drought, or predation (though the latter is rare for healthy adult animals). A remarkable aspect of elephant behaviour is their response to injured, sick and dead members of their species. Many accounts have been recorded: adult females circling around a wounded animal to prevent further attack; lifting a wounded animal to its feet and shouldering it to safety; jumping into water where a wounded animal has fallen, and heaving it out again; pulling and pushing a calf out of mud where it had become stuck; standing guard over a stricken but living animal lying on the ground; covering the body of a relative with grass and leaves as soon as it had died; returning to the carcass or even skeleton of a dead relative; and tasting, picking up, and moving the remains with their trunks.The idea of an elephant graveyard, a place where elephants go to die, is a myth. Sick and dying elephants often go to a lakeside or river, where there is a ready supply of food and water within easy reach, and several might die in one area for that reason. In times of drought, animals congregate around water holes and many may die there.
Elephants are not territorial. Although individuals or family units have home ranges, those of different animals overlap and are not defended as such. There are daily and seasonal activity patterns within the home range. They sleep lying down, usually for two to four hours in the early morning. They may also, in the hottest part of the day, stand motionless in the shade, but even when the eyes are closed, they are most likely dozing rather than sleeping.
Elephants walk or amble, but cannot canter or gallop. A charging animal can attain 5m per second (20 kph), while walking speed ranges from 0.5 – 2.5 m per second (2 – 10 kph). Elephants walk cautiously, appearing to place each foot with care to avoid ground that is too soft or cobbled, for example. Even so, they can manoeuvre very dense terrain and can climb up and down remarkably steep, slippery slopes. In seasonal movements, matriarchs lead their families along the same paths that have been used for generations; these elephant trails, trampled, barren ground 1-2 m wide, can extend for tens of kilometres. They are also adept swimmers, paddling with all four feet and using the trunk as a snorkel.
The lifespan of Asian elephants is about 70 years.
Status: wild: 70 years.
Status: wild: 78.0 years.
Status: wild: 70.0 years.
Status: wild: 40.0 years.
Status: captivity: 69.0 years.
Status: wild: 60.0 years.
Status: captivity: 80.0 years.
Status: captivity: 77.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Mating System: polygynous
Female Asian elephants bear a single calf (usually) after a gestation of more than a year and a half (18 to 22 months). Their estrus cycle is about 22 days, out of which they are receptive to copulation on only one day, the first day of estrus. There is no seasonality in their reproduction. Females on good quality habitats give birth every three to four years, while the interbirth interval can be much longer among females inhabiting poor quality areas. Newborns weigh about 100 kg and can stand soon after birth. The infant may nurse from its mother or from other lactating females. After a few days it can follow its mother as she goes about her normal activities. Young begin to eat some grass after several months but may continue nursing for 18 months. They also eat their mother's dung, which contains nutrients as well as the symbiotic bacteria that aid in the digestion of cellulose. Mothers continue to supervise their young for several years after weaning. Both sexes become sexually mature at about 14 years of age, but males cannot mate until they can dominate other adult males. Males leave their natal herd at this age, but females remain with their female relatives throughout their lives.
Breeding interval: Under the best of circumstances Asian elephants give birth every three to four years.
Breeding season: Births may occur throughout the year.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Range gestation period: 18 to 22 months.
Average weaning age: 48 months.
Average time to independence: 48 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 14 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 14 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 107000 g.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 3287 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 3287 days.
Parental Investment: pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); post-independence association with parents; extended period of juvenile learning
Evolution and Systematics
- Proboscidea derives from the proboscis, or trunk.
- elephant derives from the Greek words for a large arch, referring to the elephant’s arched back supported by pillar-like legs.
- Elephas and its relatives - including the living Asian elephant,
- Loxodonta - including the living African elephants
- Mammuthus - including the woolly mammoth
- (not to be confused with the very distantly related but similarly named proboscidean Mammut, the American mastodont).
- leading ultimately to Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant,
- first appears as a fossil in Ethiopia, 5.2 million years ago (mya).
- lineage produced a diversity of species in Africa, Europe and Asia.
- African Elephas ekorensis, from around 4.5-4 mya, appears to be close to the common ancestor of this radiation.
- Elephants entered Asia about 3 mya.
- inhabited northern India and Myanmar between about 2 and 1 mya, and is
- believed to be close to the ancestry of Elephas maximus.
- was of large size,
- massive tusks
- a well-developed double head-dome like Elephas maximus,
- remains of the hysudricus-maximus lineage
- half a million years old in the Middle East
- 120,000 years ago Elephas maximus is recorded on Java.
- An earlier form on Java
- lived from about 1 to 0.5 mya
- skull and dental anatomy appear too specialised to have given rise to the living species
Nasal passages of elephants communicate by emitting vibrations that cause infrasonic sounds.
"The elephant was the first land animal shown to communicate infrasonically--a landmark discovery that came from two independent observations. In 1981, Kansas University scientists Dr. Rickye Heffner and Dr. Henry Heffner were surprised to discover that elephants could detect sound frequencies as low as 17 Hz, which were within the infrasonic range. But why should they be able to do this? What purpose does it serve?"
This sound was described by Dr. Katherine Payne from Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology as, "I repeatedly noticed a palpable throbbing in the air like distant thunder, yet all around me was silent." (National Geographic article, August 1989). The sound reminded her of standing next to the largest organ pipe in her church when the organ blasted out the bass line in a Bach chorale.
Dr. Payne and others recorded elephants and found that "[W]ithin one month 400 separate calls had been recorded--three times the number of calls heard by the researchers in the sonic range. Analyses showed that the elephants emitted short calls at a frequence range of 14-24 Hz, which lasted for 5-10 minutes, over a period of 10 minutes.
"The tam also uncovered an important visual clue to the production of these secret sounds by elephants. When an elephant is volcalizing infrasonically, the skin on its brown flutters, vibrating gently as air passes through to its nasal passages...Since infrasound travels over long distances, it is useful in this regard. Subsequent studies have shown that elephants in Africa can hear calls from as far away as 2.5 miles (4 km) during the day, whereas in the evening this range can extend to up to 6 miles (10 km) as a result of temperature inversions in the atmosphere that make sound travel farther." (Shuker 2001:25-27)
Other infrasound communicators: okapis, giraffes, African and Asian elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, alligators, crocodiles, capercaillies, and baleen whales.
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Payne K. 1998. Silent Thunder: The Hidden Voice of Elephants. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- Shuker, KPN. 2001. The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature. London: Marshall Editions Ltd. 240 p.
Physiology and Cell Biology
Asian elephants weigh 200–265 lb (90–120 kg) at birth. Unlike other mammals, they continue to grow well into adult life. Females cease growth at 25–30 years, males at 35–45. Fully-grown Asian elephants animals typically weigh 2-3 tonnes in females and 4-5 tonnes in males, and are 2–3 m high at the shoulder.
- In contrast to African elephants (Loxodonta africana) they have
- a convex, ‘arch-shaped’ back
- the head is higher and double-domed
- ears are smaller and fold forward at the top, there is
- more body hair
- one ‘finger’ at the end of the trunk
- The elephant’s head is proportionately very large, weighing up to half a tonne; the neck is short. The body is supported on four extremely strong pillar-like legs.
- The elephant has five splayed toes buried within its foot, and stands on tip-toe; the first visible joint, some distance above the ground, is not the elbow or the knee, but the wrist or ankle.
- The foot contains a pad of springy tissue that causes the elephant’s foot to swell sideways when it bears the animal’s weight.
- The tail is long, extending to below the knee, and ends in a tuft of very coarse hairs. Otherwise, the body is sparsely covered by short hair, more pronounced in very young animals. As far as is known, there are no sweat glands.
- The ears are very large and thin, except for a thicker supporting ridge along the top. They are richly supplied with blood vessels for heat loss, and are flapped mainly for this purpose.
- The skin is a uniform gray. Elephants may take on brown or other hues after wallowing in mud.
The elephant’s trunk is, anatomically, a fusion between its nose and upper lip. The trunk is remarkably sensitive, flexible and manoeuvrable, as well as being immensely strong. It contains no bone or cartilage, but is principally composed of muscle, in eight main sets (four on each side) comprising a total of about 150,000 separately moveable muscle units. Two nostrils run the entire length of the trunk for breathing.
Only males possess tusks, although females frequently possess tiny tusks called ‘tushes’, which can just be seen protruding from the lip, especially when the trunk is raised. A percentage (currently increasing) of males congenitally lack tusks: known as ‘mukhnas’, these animals are thought to compensate by being especially strongly-built, particularly in the upper trunk region.The tusks are, anatomically, greatly expanded lateral incisor teeth. They are comprised almost entirely of dentine. About a third of their length is buried within a socket in the animal’s skull. The tusks are solid, except the upper part within the socket, where there is a pulp cavity. The tusks grow by addition of dentine there, pushing them out by up to 6 in (15 cm) a year. The tusks of a large bull can extend 79 in (200 cm) in total length and weigh 110 lb (50 kg) each, although such figures are rare nowadays.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Elephas maximus
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Elephas maximus
Public Records: 4
Specimens with Barcodes: 11
Species With Barcodes: 1
Asian elephants have a long history of being hunted by people, originally for food, later for domestic stock and ivory. Poaching for ivory continues to devastate wild populations. They also suffer due to habitat loss caused by agriculture and deforestation. Centuries ago they disappeared from southwestern Asia and most of China. Currently there are only an estimated 28,000 to 42,000 wild Asian elephants remaining. Asian elephants are kept as domestic animals and can be successfully bred in captivity to a limited extent.
Asian elephants are on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and are considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: endangered
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 1996Endangered(Baillie and Groombridge 1996)
- 1994Endangered(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Endangered(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Endangered(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Endangered(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
Date Listed: 06/14/1976
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Elephas maximus , see its USFWS Species Profile
Elephants face a dual threat to their survival
- the destruction of their habitat
- poachers hunting elephant for their ivory tusks
The hunting of elephants for meat has been practised since prehistoric times, but only with the use of firearms has the thirst for ivory posed a threat to the very survival of the species. The effect of ivory hunting on the Asian elephant is somewhat different from that on its African cousin, since in the African elephant both males and females carry tusks and are hunted, while in the Asian species only the males have ivory. This has led to a situation in some parts of Asia where the natural female-to-male ratio of 2:1 has risen to anything from 5:1 in the best-protected areas, to 100:1 in the worst; in the latter cases, the survival of even sizeable populations is threatened because of lowered reproductive rate.From its foundation in the 1970s, CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) placed Asian elephants on its Appendix I, effectively banning all trade in their ivory. However, poaching and trading in ivory continues. Combating the ivory trade is a complex issue that requires the enforcement not only of bans against hunting, but international action to trace the organizers of poaching, the middle men, and the ultimate consumers.
In addition, habitat destruction has both reduced the total range of elephants, and has greatly fragmented it. The principal cause is human settlement and agriculture due to population growth, but activities such as logging for financial gain also contribute. Over much of the range, the remaining areas of habitat correspond to national parks, nature reserves and the like. Many of these fragments retain less than 100 individuals, and prospects for their long-term survival are not good. If there is no exchange of individuals with other populations, inbreeding reduces the genetic health of the population. If climatic fluctuations produce a series of stressful years, the population will suffer increased mortality and reduced birth rate, and may not recover.
is a serious issue in some areas. Elephants enter agricultural areas and can destroy the entire crop of a small holding in a single night. They also damage buildings and annually kill dozens of villagers in Asia. Traditional countermeasures include lighting flares, throwing rocks, employing domestic elephants to chase away the marauders, or digging trenches around fields. The latter are of some use but elephants learn how to fill them with earth or logs. Electric fences are employed by rich landowners, but are too expensive to bound large national parks or small private holdings. Other measures include not planting crops favoured by elephants in the area around their habitat, and relocating farms and villages (with compensation paid to the farmers). The latter may also be necessary when extending reserves or creating habitat corridors.
The management and protection of elephant habitats is thus a major goal. International support enabling poor countries to maintain existing wildlife reserves, or to create new ones, is crucial. Properly managed eco-tourism can be beneficial, as it provides an income underscoring the value of the reserve. Yet small reserves, even when protected, may not support enough animals to give a viable population. Raman Sukumar has suggested that 50 breeding individuals, translating into 125-150 animals, is a minimum goal, with 10 times that number an ideal. One solution to this problem is to create corridors of habitat, allowing animals to migrate between parks, so that populations are effectively merged into one, viable unit.
The overall population trend of the Asian elephant has been downwards, probably for centuries. This remains the case in most parts of its range, but especially in most of the countries of South-east Asia. Within India, there is evidence that the large population in the Western Ghats in south of the country has been increasing in recent years due to improved conservation effectiveness.
Asian elephants live in the region of the world with the densest human population, growing at a rate of between 1–3% per year. Because elephants require much larger areas of natural habitat than most other terrestrial mammals in Asia, they are one of the first species to suffer the consequences of habitat fragmentation and destruction and because of its great size and large food requirements, the elephant cannot co-exist with people in areas where agriculture is the dominant form of land-use. In extreme cases, elephants have been confined as so called ‘pocketed herds’ in small patches of forest in landscapes dominated by man. Such ‘pocketed herds’ represent an extreme stage in the human–elephant conflict (Olivier, 1978). In other cases elephants have been caught and taken to so-called Elephant Training Centres where they languish, lost to the wild population (Hedges et al., 2005, 2006).
Poaching is a major threat to elephants in Asia too, although reliable estimates of the number of elephants killed and the quantities of ivory and other body parts collected and traded are scarce (Sukumar et al., 1998; Milliken, 2005). It has been argued that poaching is a relatively minor threat to Asian elephant because some males and all females lack tusks (Dawson and Blackburn, 1991). However, the reality is that elephants are poached for a variety of other products (including meat and leather) in addition to ivory, and poaching is now acknowledged as a threat to the long-term survival of some Asian elephant populations (e.g. Kemf and Santiapillai, 2000; Menon, 2002). Moreover, poaching of elephants for ivory is a serious problem in some parts of Asia (Sukumar, 1992; Menon et al., 1997). In Periyar Tiger Reserve in southern India, for example, ivory poaching has dramatically skewed adult sex ratios: over the 20-year period from 1969 to 1989 the adult male:female sex ratio changed from 1:6 to 1:122 (Chandran, 1990). Selective removal of tusked males has several implications for the affected populations: sex ratios obviously become highly female biased, genetic variation is reduced, and fecundity and recruitment may decline (Sukumar et al., 1998; Sukumar, 2003). Poaching of elephants is also a major problem in other parts of Asia. Large-scale hunting of elephants for ivory, bushmeat, hides, and other products has reduced their populations significantly over a wide area from Myanmar to Indonesia (Menon et al., 1997; Duckworth and Hedges, 1998; Kemf and Santiapillai, 2000; Martin and Stiles, 2002; Menon, 2002; World Wide Fund for Nature, 2002a; Hedges et al., 2005).
This species is one of a number which have been included in various “Pleistocene rewilding” plans. Pleistocene rewilding is the proposed practice of restoring ecosystems to their state in the Pleistocene, roughly 10,000 years ago. This contrasts the standard conservation benchmark, particularly in North America, of restoring ecosystems to their pre-Columbian or pre-industrial state. In both Eurasia and North America, the Pleistocene was characterized by much greater diversity and numbers of large herbivores and predators, including proboscidians, equids, camelids, and felidae (Donlan et al 2006; Zimov 2005). The process of restoration would involve the reintroduction of extant species in their historic range, as well as the introduction of ‘proxy organisms’ to replace the ecological functionality of extinct organisms (Donlan et al 2006).
There are three central theoretical goals to Pleistocene rewilding. In Siberia, a team led by Sergey Zimov is investigating the role of large herbivores as ecosystem engineers. It is thought that herbivory pressure could play a central role in maintaining a grass-dominated plant community, as opposed to either tree- or moss-dominated. Grasslands are known to be more stable carbon sinks than either mossy or forested tundra, due to the rapidity of their biogeochemical cycling (Zimov 2005). In principle, then, reintroducing Pleistocene fauna could have positive climate change mitigation effects. Proposals in North America have focused instead on the preservation of ecological dynamics. Proponents of Pleistocene rewilding argue that due to the strong ecological interactions of megafauna, it is likely that their extinction at the end of the Pleistocene would have caused cascading ecological disruptions lasting until the present time (Donlan et al 2006). Additionally, introduction programs could provide a new lease on life for extant, endangered megafauna species, such as cheetahs and Asian elephants (Rubenstein 2006).
Pleistocene rewilding, while headline-grabbing, is by no means the standard of modern conservation biology. There are a number of objections to the proposals of Pleistocene rewilders, summarized by Rubenstein et al (2006). The introduction of species which have been locally extinct for thousands of years, and more particularly the introduction of modern relatives of extinct species, carries many risks: the potential for invasive species, catastrophic disruption of existing ecosystems, inadvertent introduction of disease organisms, and unpredictable behavior of introduced species. Additionally, while paleoecology is a growing field, there is still a fair amount of uncertainty about the actual ecosystem functions of the Pleistocene.
Species which Zimov and his colleagues in Siberia are experimenting with bison, musk oxen, Przewalski’s horse, and Siberian tigers (Zimov 2005). Small-scale introductions have already begun in Yakutia. Donlan et al propose introducing Przewalski’s horse, Bolson tortoises, Bactrian camels, cheetahs, lions, and elephants into the Western United States (Donlan et al 2005). While some individuals of these species are present on privately owned land, there are no free-living populations in North America at this time.
- Donlan CJ, Berger J, Bock CE, Bock JH, Burney DA, Estes JA, Foreman D, Martin PS, Roemer GW, Smith FA, Soule ME, Greene HW. 2005. Pleistocene Rewilding: An Optimistic Agenda for Twenty-First Century Conservation. The American Naturalist 168:660-681.
- Donlan, CJ. 2005. Re-Wilding North America. Nature 436:913-914.
- Rubenstein DR, Rubenstein DI, Sherman PW, Gavin TA. 2006. Pleistocene Park: Does Rewilding North America Represent Sound Conservation for the 21st Century? Biological Conservation 132:232-238.
- Zimov, SA. 2005. Pleistocene Park: Return of the Mammoth’s Ecosystem. Science 308:796-798.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Elephants enjoy cultivated foods such as bananas and sugar cane, and so can become crop pests in some areas. Wild elephants are can be aggressive to humans and dangerous.
Negative Impacts: crop pest
Asian elephants have been domesticated for centuries. Individuals can be trained to reliably perform a wide variety of tasks. They are used as draft animals, for hunting, and for transportation. Ivory from their tusks is used in the manufacture of a number of items, including jewelry.
Positive Impacts: body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism
Significance to humans
has been practised since at least 30,000 years ago, when Palaeolithic people in Europe made tools and ornaments out of mammoth tusk. Ivory is hard, fine-grained, and has an elasticity that makes it excellent for carving: skilled craftspeople can produce objects of great beauty. Countless functional objects have been made throughout history: piano keys and billiard balls were one of the main uses in the West, and in recent decades, the ornamental ‘signature seal’ of Japan has become a major end-product.
The earliest evidence of elephant domestication is in the third millennium BC in the Indus Valley of India. The initial domestication was probably for purposes of traction, tree-felling and porterage; this usage continues today in parts of southeast Asia, although it is declining. Elephants were formerly captured from the wild, either singly in pits or as family units in stockades; now they are bred and trained from calves. An elephant can recognise and respond to 30 or more commands issued by its mahout, or driver.
Soon after their domestication, elephants were pressed into military service. In 326 BC, the Indian king Porus, with 200 elephants in his army, was famously defeated by Alexander. A typical battle formation of the Vedas included 45 elephants, which were the first to charge, throwing the enemy into disorder and knocking down stockades. Kings and princes hunted from elephant-back, a practice taken over with enthusiasm by European colonizers. In general, elephants came to embody royalty, largely because of the high price of their capture and maintenance.
The elephant also plays a prominent part in the Hindu pantheon. Airavata was the elephant mount of Lord Brahma, creator of the universe. Two elephants were the massive pillars of the world and bore the earth on their enormous heads. Ganesh, the elephant god, is one of the best-loved of all Hindu deities: as the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings, he is invoked at the start of any undertaking. The worship of Lord Ganesh originated in the third or fourth century AD, and created a strong ethos against the killing of elephants. In Buddhist countries, especially in Indochina, the very rare white elephant was revered as an incarnation of the Buddha; when captured, it was ministered to with the utmost care.
Other than general utilities in transportation and animal labor, elephants have been integrated into the Asian cultures as useful animals for war animals. Due to their size and strength, elephants were often used as part of cavalry unit to intimidate enemies and drive back infantry.
The Asian or Asiatic 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. Three subspecies are recognized—Elephas maximus maximus from Sri Lanka, the Indian elephant or E. m. indicus from mainland Asia, and E. m. sumatranus from the island of Sumatra. Asian elephants are the largest living land animals in Asia.
Since 1986, E. maximus has been listed as endangered by IUCN as the population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations, estimated to be 60–75 years. Asian elephants are primarily threatened by degradation, fragmentation and loss of habitat, and poaching. In 2003, the wild population was estimated at between 41,410 and 52,345 individuals. Female captive elephants have lived beyond 60 years when kept in semi-natural surroundings, such as forest camps. In zoos, elephants die at a much younger age and are declining due to a low birth and high death rate.
The genus Elephas originated in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Pliocene, and ranged throughout Africa into southern Asia. The earliest indications of captive use of Asian elephants are engravings on seals of the Indus Valley civilization dated to the third millennium BC.
- 1 Characteristics
- 2 Distribution and habitat
- 3 Ecology and behavior
- 4 Interaction with humans
- 5 Threats
- 6 Conservation
- 7 Taxonomy
- 8 In culture
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
In general, the Asian elephant is smaller than the African elephant and has the highest body point on the head. The back is convex or level. The ears are small with dorsal borders folded laterally. It has up to 20 pairs of ribs and 34 caudal vertebrae. The feet have more nail-like structures than those of African elephants—five on each forefoot, and four on each hind foot.
As is common with large animals, the dimensions of the Asian elephant are often exaggerated. On average, the shoulder height of males rarely exceeds 2.7 m (9 ft) and that of the females, 2.4 m (8 ft). Average height of females is 2.24 m (7.3 ft), and average weight 2.72 t (3.00 short tons) rarely exceeding 4.16 t (4.59 short tons). Large bulls weigh up to 5.4 t (6.0 short tons) and are 3.2 m (10 ft) at the shoulder. Length of body and head including trunk is 5.5–6.5 m (18–21 ft) with the tail being 1.2–1.5 m (3.9–4.9 ft) long. The largest bull elephant ever recorded was shot by the Maharajah of Susang in the Garo Hills of Assam, India in 1924, it weighed 8 tonnes (8.8 short tons), stood 3.35 m (11 ft) tall at the shoulders and was 8.06 m (26.4 ft) long from head to tail. There are reports of larger individuals as tall as 3.7 m (12 ft).
The distinctive trunk is an elongation of the nose and upper lip combined; the nostrils are at its tip, which has a one finger-like process. The trunk contains as many as 60,000 muscles, which consist of longitudinal and radiating sets. The longitudinals are mostly superficial and subdivided into anterior, lateral, and posterior. The deeper muscles are best seen as numerous distinct fasciculi in a cross-section of the trunk. The trunk is a multipurpose prehensile organ and highly sensitive, innervated by the maxillary division of the trigeminal nerve and by the facial nerve. The acute sense of smell uses both the trunk and Jacobson's organ. Elephants use their trunks for breathing, watering, feeding, touching, dusting, sound production and communication, washing, pinching, grasping, defense and offense.
The "proboscis" or trunk consists wholly of muscular and membranous tissue, and is a tapering muscular structure of nearly circular cross-section extending proximally from attachment at the anterior nasal orifice, and ending distally in a tip or finger. The length may vary from 1.5 to 2 m (59 to 79 in) or longer depending on the species and age. Four basic muscle masses—the radial, the longitudinal and two oblique layers—and the size and attachments points of the tendon masses allow the shortening, extension, bending, and twisting movements accounting for the ability to hold, and manipulate loads of up to 300 kg (660 lb). Muscular and tendinous ability combined with nervous control allows extraordinary strength and agility movements of the trunk, such as sucking and spraying of water or dust and directed air flow blowing.
The trunk can hold about four litres of water. Elephants will playfully wrestle with each other using their trunks, but generally use their trunks only for gesturing when fighting.
Tusks serve to dig for water, salt, and rocks, to debark trees, as levers for maneuvering fallen trees and branches, for work, for display, for marking trees, as weapon for offense and defense, as trunk-rests, as protection for the trunk. They are known to be right or left tusked.
Female Asian elephants usually lack tusks; if tusks—in that case called "tushes"—are present, they are barely visible, and only seen when the mouth is open. The enamel plates of the molars are greater in number and closer together in Asian elephants. Some males may also lack tusks; these individuals are called "filsy makhnas", and are especially common among the Sri Lankan elephant population. Furthermore, the forehead has two hemispherical bulges, unlike the flat front of the African elephant. Unlike African elephants which rarely use their forefeet for anything other than digging or scraping soil, Asian elephants are more agile at using their feet in conjunction with the trunk for manipulating objects. They can sometimes be known for their violent behavior.
A record tusk described by George P. Sanderson measured 5 ft (1.5 m) along the curve, with a girth of 16 in (41 cm) at the point of emergence from the jaw, the weight being 104 1⁄2 lb (47.4 kg). This was from an elephant killed by Sir Brooke and measured 8 ft (2.4 m) in length, and nearly 17 in (43 cm) in circumference, and weighed 90 lb (41 kg). The tusk's weight was, however, exceeded by the weight of a shorter tusk of about 6 ft (1.8 m) in length which weighed 100 lb (45 kg).
Skin color is usually gray, and may be masked by soil because of dusting and wallowing. Their wrinkled skin is movable and contains many nerve centers. It is smoother than of African elephants, and may be depigmented on the trunk, ears, or neck. The epidermis and dermis of the body average 18 mm (0.71 in) thick; skin on the dorsum is 30 mm (1.2 in) thick providing protection against bites, bumps, and adverse weather. Its folds increase surface area for heat dissipation. They can tolerate cold better than excessive heat. Skin temperature varies from 24 to 32.9 °C (75.2 to 91.2 °F). Body temperature averages 35.9 °C (96.6 °F).
Asian elephants are highly intelligent and self-aware. They have a very large and highly convoluted neocortex, a trait also shared by humans, apes and certain dolphin species. Asian elephants have the greatest volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing of all existing land animals. Elephants have a volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing that exceeds that of any primate species, and extensive studies place elephants in the category of great apes in terms of cognitive abilities for tool use and tool making. They exhibit a wide variety of behaviors, including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and language. Elephants are reported to go to safer ground during natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes, although there have been no scientific records of this since it is hard to recreate or predict natural disasters.
Distribution and habitat
Asian elephants inhabit grasslands, tropical evergreen forests, semi-evergreen forests, moist deciduous forests, dry deciduous forests and dry thorn forests, in addition to cultivated and secondary forests and scrublands. Over this range of habitat types elephants occur from sea level to over 3,000 m (9,800 ft). In the Eastern Himalaya in northeast India, they regularly move up above 3,000 m (9,800 ft) in summer at a few sites. In China, Asian elephants survive only in the prefectures of Xishuangbanna, Simao, and Lincang of southern Yunnan. In Bangladesh, only isolated populations survive in the Chittagong Hills.
- the Sri Lankan elephant occurs in Sri Lanka;
- the Indian elephant occurs in mainland Asia: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Malay Peninsula, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam;
- the Sumatran elephant occurs in Sumatra.
The Borneo elephant occurs in Borneo's northern and northeastern parts. In 2003, mitochondrial DNA analysis and microsatellite data indicated that the Borneo elephant population is derived from stock that originated in the region of the Sunda Islands. The genetic divergence of Borneo elephants warrants their recognition as a separate Evolutionary Significant Unit.
Ecology and behavior
Elephants are crepuscular. They are classified as megaherbivores and consume up to 150 kg (330 lb) of plant matter per day. They are generalist feeders, and both grazers and browsers, and were recorded to feed on 112 different plant species, most commonly of the order Malvales, and the legume, palm, sedge and true grass families. They browse more in the dry season with bark constituting a major part of their diet in the cool part of that season. They drink at least once a day and are never far from a permanent source of fresh water. They need 80–200 litres of water a day and use even more for bathing. At times, they scrape the soil for clay or minerals.
Adult females and calves may move about together as groups, but adult males disperse from their mothers upon reaching adolescence. Bull elephants may be solitary or form temporary 'bachelor groups'.
Cow-calf unit sizes generally tend to be small, typically consisting of three adult females which are most likely related, and their offspring; however, larger groups containing as many as 15 adult females may occur. There can also be seasonal aggregations containing 100 individuals at a time, including calves and subadults. Until recently, Asian elephants, like African elephants, were thought to typically follow the leadership of older adult females, or matriarchs, but females can form extensive and very fluid social networks, with individual variation in the degree of gregariousness. Social ties generally tend to be weaker than in African elephants.
Bulls will fight one another to get access to estrous females. Strong fights over access to females are extremely rare. Bulls reach sexual maturity around the age of 12–15. Between the age of 10 and 20 years, bulls undergo an annual phenomenon known as "musth". This is a period where the testosterone level is up to 100 times greater than nonmusth periods, and they become extremely aggressive. Secretions containing pheromones occur during this period, from the paired temporal glands located on the head between the lateral edge of the eye and the base of the ear.
The gestation period is 18–22 months, and the female gives birth to one calf, only occasionally twins. The calf is fully developed by the 19th month, but stays in the womb to grow so that it can reach its mother to feed. At birth, the calf weighs about 100 kg (220 lb), and is suckled for up to three years. Once a female gives birth, she usually does not breed again until the first calf is weaned, resulting in a 4- to 5-year birth interval. Females stay on with the herd, but mature males are chased away.
Asiatic elephants reach adulthood at 17 years of age in both sexes. Elephants' life expectancy has been exaggerated in the past; they live on average for 60 years in the wild and 80 in captivity.
Interaction with humans
At most seasons of the year, Asian elephants are timid and much more ready to flee from a foe than to attack. However, solitary rogues are frequently an exception to this rule, and sometimes make unprovoked attacks on passers-by. Rogue elephants sometimes take up a position near a road, making it impassable to travelers. Females with calves are at all times dangerous to approach. When an Asian elephant makes a charge, it tightly curls up its trunk and attacks by trampling its victim with feet or knees, or, if a male, by pinning it to the ground with its tusks. During musth, bulls are highly dangerous, not only to human beings, but also to other animals. At the first indications, trained elephants are secured tightly to prevent any mishaps. There is also one case of a rogue elephant having actually consumed a human, an attack merited to be extremely unnatural. The elephant, a rogue female, had previously lost her calf to an accident involving farmers. This grievous loss led the elephant to target humans first as a threat, and then as a food source as her mental state deteriorated until she was finally killed and later dissected, revealing through DNA analysis that she had indeed consumed human flesh. The incident was revealed to the general public in several articles and in the Animal Planet documentary "World's Deadliest Towns: Man-Eating Elephant".
The first historical record of the domestication of Asian elephants was in Harappan times. Ultimately, the elephant went on to become a siege engine, a mount in war, a status symbol, a beast of burden, and an elevated platform for hunting during historical times in South Asia.
Elephants have been captured from the wild and tamed for use by humans. Their ability to work under instruction makes them particularly useful for carrying heavy objects. They have been used particularly for timber-carrying in jungle areas. Other than their work use, they have been used in war, in ceremonies, and for carriage. They have been used for their ability to travel over difficult terrain by hunters, for whom they served as mobile hunting platforms. The same purpose is met in safaris in modern times.
The pre-eminent threats to Asian elephants today are loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitat, leading in turn to increasing conflicts between humans and elephants. They are poached for ivory and a variety of other products including meat and leather.
One of the major instigators of human–wildlife conflict is competition for space. Destruction of forests through logging, encroachment, slash-and-burn, shifting cultivation, and monoculture tree plantations are major threats to the survival of elephants. Human–elephant conflicts occur when elephants raid crops of shifting cultivators in fields, which are scattered over a large area interspersed with forests. Depredation in human settlements is another major area of human–elephant conflict occurring in small forest pockets, encroachments into elephant habitat, and on elephant migration routes. Studies in Sri Lanka indicate that traditional slash-and-burn agriculture creates optimal habitat for elephants by creating a mosaic of successional-stage vegetation. Populations inhabiting small habitat fragments are much more liable to come into conflict with humans.
Human-elephant conflict is categorized into:
- ultimate causes including growing human population, large-scale development projects and poor top-down governance;
- proximate causes including habitat loss due to deforestation, disruption of elephant migratory routes, expansion of agriculture and illegal encroachment into protected areas.
Development such as border fencing along the India-Bangladesh border has become a major impediment to the free movement of elephants. In Assam, more than 1,150 humans and 370 elephants died as a result of human-elephant conflict between 1980 and 2003. In India alone, over 400 people are killed by elephants every year, and 0.8 to 1 million hectares are damaged, affecting at least 500,000 families across the country. Moreover, elephants are known to destroy crops worth up to US$2–3 million annually. This has major impacts on the welfare and livelihoods of local communities, as well as the future conservation of this species.
The demand for ivory as a result of rapid economic development during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in East Asia, led to rampant poaching and the serious decline of elephants in many Asian and African range countries. In Thailand, the illegal trade in live elephants and ivory still flourishes. Although the quantity of worked ivory seen openly for sale has decreased substantially since 2001, Thailand still has one of the largest and most active ivory industries seen anywhere in the world. Tusks from Thai poached elephants also enter the market; between 1992 and 1997 at least 24 male elephants were killed for their tusks.
Up to the early 1990s, Vietnamese ivory craftsmen used exclusively Asian elephant ivory from Vietnam and neighbouring Lao PDR and Cambodia. Before 1990, there were few tourists and the low demand for worked ivory could be supplied by domestic elephants. Economic liberalization and an increase in tourism raised both local and visitors’ demands for worked ivory, which resulted in heavy poaching.
Young elephants are captured and illegally imported to Thailand from Myanmar for use in the tourism industry; calves are used mainly in amusement parks and are trained to perform various stunts for tourists.
The calves are often subjected to a 'breaking in' process, which may involve being tied up, confined, starved, beaten and tortured; as a result, two-thirds may perish. Handlers use a technique known as the training crush, in which "handlers use sleep-deprivation, hunger, and thirst to "break" the elephants' spirit and make them submissive to their owners"; moreover, handlers drive nails into the elephants' ears and feet.
Asian elephants are quintessential flagship species, deployed to catalyze a range of conservation goals, including:
- habitat conservation at landscape scales
- generating public awareness of conservation issues
- mobilization as a popular cultural icon both in India and the West
About half of the global zoo elephant population is kept in European zoos, where they have about half the median life span of conspecifics in protected populations in range countries. This discrepancy is clearest in Asian elephants: infant mortality is twice that seen in Burmese timber camps, and its adult survivorship in zoos has not improved significantly in recent years. One risk factor for Asian zoo elephants is being moved between institutions, with early removal from the mother tending to have additional adverse effects. Another risk factor is being born into a zoo rather than being imported from the wild, with poor adult survivorship in zoo-born Asians apparently being conferred prenatally or in early infancy. Likely causes for compromised survivorship is stress and/or obesity.
Demographic analysis of the captive Asian elephants in North America indicates that the population is not self-sustaining. First year mortality is nearly 30%, and the fecundity is extremely low throughout the prime reproductive years. Data from North American and European regional studbooks from 1962 to 2006 were analysed for deviation of the birth and juvenile death sex ratio. Of 349 captive calves born, 142 died prematurely. They died within 1 month of birth; major causes being stillbirth and infanticide by either the calf's own mother or by one of the exhibition mates. The sex ratio of stillbirths in Europe was found to have a tendency for excess of males.
Carl Linnaeus first described the genus Elephas and an elephant from Ceylon under the binomial Elephas maximus in 1758. In 1798, Georges Cuvier first described the Indian elephant under the binomial Elephas indicus. In 1847, Coenraad Jacob Temminck first described the Sumatran elephant under the binomial Elephas sumatranus. Frederick Nutter Chasen classified all three as subspecies of the Asian elephant in 1940.
In 1950, Paules Edward Pieris Deraniyagala described the Borneo elephant under the trinomial Elephas maximus borneensis, taking as his type an illustration in the National Geographical Magazine, but not a living elephant in accordance with the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. E. m. borneensis lives in northern Borneo and is smaller than all the other subspecies, but with larger ears, a longer tail, and straight tusks. Results of genetic analysis indicate that its ancestors separated from the mainland population about 300,000 years ago.
The population in Vietnam and Laos was tested to determine if it is a subspecies, as well. This research is considered vital, as less than 1300 wild Asian elephants remain in Laos. In addition, two extinct subspecies are considered to have existed:
- The Chinese elephant is sometimes separated as E. m. rubridens (pink-tusked elephant); it disappeared after the 14th century BC.
- The Syrian elephant (E. m. asurus), the westernmost and the largest subspecies of the Asian elephant, became extinct around 100 BC. This population, along with the Indian elephant, was considered the best war elephant in antiquity, and was found superior to the smallish North African elephant (Loxodonta africana pharaoensis) used by the armies of Carthage.
The elephant plays an important part in the culture of the subcontinent and beyond, featuring prominently in Jataka tales and the Panchatantra. They play a major role in Hinduism: the god Ganesha's head is that of an elephant, and the "blessings" of a temple elephant are highly valued. Elephants have been used in processions in Kerala, where the animals are adorned with festive outfits.
The elephant is depicted in several Indian manuscripts and treatises. Notable amongst these is the Matanga Lila ("Elephant sport") of Rameswara Pandita and the Hastividyarnava of Sukumar Barkaith. The latter manuscript is from Assam in northeast India.
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Just before dawn in the remote highlands of northern Thailand, west of the village Mae Jaem, a four-year-old elephant bellows as seven village men stab nails into her ears and feet. She is tied up and immobilized in a small, wooden cage. Her cries are the only sounds to interrupt the otherwise quiet countryside. The cage is called a "training crush." It's the centerpiece of a centuries-old ritual in northern Thailand designed to domesticate young elephants. In addition to beatings, handlers use sleep-deprivation, hunger, and thirst to "break" the elephants' spirit and make them submissive to their owners.
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