Asian Elephant
(Elephas maximus)
The largest land mammal in Asia, this intelligent, highly social animal lives in small groups led by the dominant female, or 'matriarch’. The elephant play a crucial role in its forest ecosystem. Commonly referred to as a ‘keystone’ species, it helps to open up forest clearings and distributes the seeds of trees and shrubs. Threatened by poaching and the destruction of the forests in which they live, these magnificent animals are increasingly coming into conflict with the people sharing their habitat. Effective management of the species and its environment is required in order to resolve these issues.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Increase national and international protected area network, create corridors to facilitate migration and minimise conflict between elephants and humans.
Mainland Asia and the islands of Sri Lanka, Borneo and Sumatra.
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Proboscidea
Family: Elephantidae
The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) are the only elephant species remaining from a formerly diverse evolutionary radiation. A third proboscidean species, the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), survived into early historical time. This group is thought to have originated in Africa during the Eocene (some 50-60 million years ago) and subsequently spread to Europe, Asia, and North and South America. Two main lineages had evolved by the early Pliocene: the Elephantidae, to which the two living species belong, and the extinct mastodons of the families Mastodontidae and Stegodontidae. The Asian elephant and mammoth lineage dispersed from Africa during the mid-late Pliocene, spread throughout Europe and Asia, and became restricted to Asia by the late Pleistocene. The closest living relatives of the two elephant species are the sea cows (manatees and dugongs), whose ancestors diverged from the Proboscidea during the Palaeocene (50-60 million years ago).
Head and body length: 550-640 cm
Tail length: 120-150 cm
Shoulder height: 250-300 cm
Weight: Male: 5,400 kg
Female: 2,720 kg
Elephants are large, stocky animals with a strong, flexible trunk, which is an extension of the nose and upper lip. The Asian elephant is the largest land mammal in Asia. It is smaller than the African elephant, and can be distinguished by its smaller ears, more rounded back, and the presence of two dome-like structures on the top of the head. The two species also differ in the structure of their trunks; Asian elephants have a single finger-like process at the tip of the trunk, whereas the African elephant has two. The tusks, which are modified incisors, are also smaller in Asian elephants, and often lacking altogether in females. Instead, the females possess ‘tushes’, which are much smaller projections that rarely extend beyond the mouth. The thick, wrinkly skin of the Asian elephant is greyish-brown in colour and sparsely covered with stiff hairs. Pink mottling is sometimes seen around the face and base of the trunk, a result of de-pigmentation of the skin. There is a high degree of sexual dimorphism between males and females, with the largest males reaching about twice the size of adult females
Asian elephants are very social animals. They live in family groups consisting of related females and their offspring that are led by the oldest female, the ‘matriarch’. The social bond between group members is very strong, and co-operative behaviour is common, particularly in the protection and guidance of the young. The average group size is around six or seven. There is no evidence of territoriality, and groups occasionally coalesce to form herds when food is plentiful. Males leave the natal group when they reach sexual maturity, at around 6-7 years. After this time they tend to live alone or in small temporary all-male groups. At around 20 years males first come into ‘musth’, an extreme state of arousal in which highly elevated testosterone levels cause aggressive behaviour, pronounced secretions from the temporal gland, and an increase in sexual activity. Musth occurs annually and usually lasts two or three months. During this time males will wander widely in search of receptive females. Females become sexually mature at around 10 years and generally first give birth at around 15-16 years. When habitat conditions are favourable, they are capable of giving birth every 3-4 years. Elephants can live as long as 70 years, although the period of greatest female fecundity is between 25 and 45 years of age. The gestation period lasts 18-22 months, and usually results in the birth of a single calf, weighing an average of 100 kg. The calf may continue nursing for up to 18 months, and can suckle from its mother or from other lactating females in the group.

The species feeds during the morning and evening and at night, and rests in the shade during the heat of the day. The diet consists mostly of grasses, but bark, roots, stems, and the leaves of trees, vines and shrubs are also eaten. Cultivated crops such as bananas, rice and sugarcane are also favoured foods, bringing the species into conflict with local farmers. The trunk is used extensively for grasping food, as well as for drinking, smelling, touching, vocalising and throwing dust or water over the body. Individuals eat an average of 150 kg of food per day, but more than half of this passes out undigested in the faeces. Calves often feed on their mother’s dung for extra nutrients. Elephants must drink frequently, as they require 70-90 litres of water each day.

Elephants play a vital role in the ecosystems they inhabit. They modify their habitat by converting areas of forest to grassland, and are important seed dispersers. They can provide water for other species by digging holes in dry riverbeds, and the wide paths they create as they wander through the forests act as firebreaks.
The species is found in a variety of habitats, ranging from thick jungle to grassy plains. It is generally found in scrub forest, particularly in areas of habitat mosaics containing both grasses and low woody plants and trees.
Elephantus maximus indicus is the most widely distributed subspecies, currently occurring in fragmented forest patches on the Asian mainland, from India and Nepal, east to Vietnam and Malaysia. E. m. maximus is restricted to the island of Sri Lanka, and E. m. sumatrensis and E. m. borneensis occur on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo respectively.
Population Estimate
According to the WWF, only 35,000-50,000 Asian elephants were thought to remain in the wild in 1995. Since then, several populations have dwindled further, and scientists fear that current populations may have fallen well below this estimate. The majority of elephants occur in India (20,000-25,000) and Myanmar (5,000-6,000). There are thought to be fewer than 200 elephants surviving in Vietnam.
Population Trend
Classified as Endangered (EN A2c) on the 2010 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Habitat loss has been a primary factor in the decline of the Asian elephant. As the human population in the region has increased, vast areas of the elephant’s forest habitat have been logged or converted to agriculture. The elephants have become increasingly isolated in habitat patches as human settlements cut off ancient migratory routes. There is concern that many of these subpopulations are too small to be viable. Even protected populations are at risk from inbreeding and disease and may be too small to be viable, as the majority of existing national parks and reserves cover relatively restricted areas. Elephants are increasingly coming into contact with farmers and local people as their feeding grounds are destroyed. They raid crops, destroy properties, and sometimes even kill people. The villagers often retaliate by killing the elephants, and experts believe this is now the main cause of elephant deaths in Asia.

Poaching for ivory, and occasionally meat, continues to threaten wild populations, although reliable estimates of the number of elephants killed and the quantities of ivory and other body parts collected and traded are scarce. Since only males have tusks, poaching has resulted in populations becoming skewed towards females. This has affected breeding rates and may lead to increased instances of inbreeding and decreased breeding success. Unsustainable capture for domestication is a historical cause of population decline, which persists in some countries today.
Conservation Underway
The species is protected in all its range states and is listed on Appendix I of CITES. However, illegal poaching remains a problem. Current conservation projects involve protecting and restoring important areas of habitat, monitoring and protecting key populations, strengthening anti-poaching efforts, monitoring illegal trade, education, and reducing the conflict between elephants and humans. Research is also underway to collect information on elephant distribution, habitat requirements and home-range size.

Several national and international organisations are involved in Asian elephant conservation, including WWF, Flora and Fauna International (FFI) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). International co-operation is required to conserve elephants, particularly in areas where migration routes cross frontiers. In January 2006 all 13 nations with wild populations of Asian elephants met as a group for the first time to discuss the species' future survival – a vital step forward for the conservation of this magnificent animal.
Conservation Proposed
The IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG) is the co-ordinating body for Asian elephant conservation and produced a 1990 Action Plan outlining the conservation measures required. These include establishing a network of protected areas for elephant conservation in each country, the creation of national and international corridors to facilitate elephant migration, mitigating conflict between elephants and people, translocation of elephants from areas where they have become pests, control of poaching, and further research in order to make appropriate management recommendations.

Many of the AsESG’s recommendations are currently being implemented, but it is important that this work continues. Conservationists must continue to work together with local communities to secure existing reserves and create new wildlife corridors, and ensure that the needs of wildlife and local stakeholders are reconciled. The creation of forested corridors that link areas of protected elephant habitat is vital if the species is to survive in the wild. This will allow elephants to migrate between reserves that might otherwise be too small to maintain them. Currently, a lack of knowledge concerning the distribution and occurrence of elephants is hampering conservation efforts. AsESG proposes to create a database on the status of elephant populations and habitats, and link this to a ‘strategic plan’ that identifies specific research and conservation priorities within individual countries. This will provide governments, NGOs, donors and individuals involved in Asian elephant conservation with guidance on how best they can work and contribute at the local, national, regional, and global levels.
Associated EDGE Community members

Jyoti is a young biologist working in the Himalaya Biodiversity Hotspot

Bhichet works on the mitigation of human-elephant confilcts.

GWild will wear ONLY 12 outfits in 12 months for 12 threatened animals to fundraise for their conservation.

Conservation geneticist: Wildgenes laboratory

Project Manager of the "Reducing Human-Elephant conflict in Thailand Project"

WWF Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS)
Projects involve protecting and restoring important areas of habitat, strengthening of anti-poaching efforts, monitoring of illegal trade (in collaboration with TRAFFIC) and reducing the conflict between elephants and humans.

Flora and Fauna International (FFI) Asian Elephant Conservation Programme
Carries out elephant conservation work in Indonesia (particularly Sumatra), Cambodia and Vietnam, with plans for programmes in Laos, China and Thailand.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
Working to identify, monitor and protect key elephant populations across Southeast Asia. It currently has projects in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.

Project Elephant
Initiated in 1991 as the Indian National Elephant Conservation and Management Strategy. This programme aims to ensure the long-term survival of elephant populations primarily through habitat protection and restoration, but also through human-elephant conflict mitigation and eco-development.

Zoo population

There are Asian elephants resident at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

ARKive. (Nov 2005).

Choudhury, A., Lahiri Choudhury, D.K., Desai, A., Duckworth, J.W., Easa, P.S., Johnsingh, A.J.T., Fernando, P., Hedges, S., Gunawardena, M., Kurt, F., Karanth, U., Lister, A., Menon, V., Riddle, H., Rübel, A. & Wikramanayake, E. 2008. Elephas maximus. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 15 November 2010.

Nowak, R.M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. Sixth edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Santiapillai, C. and Jackson, P. 1990. The Asian Elephant: An Action Plan for its Conservation. IUCN: Gland, Switzerland.

WWF. (July 2005).

WWF Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS)

Distribution map based on data provided by the IUCN Global Mammal Assessment.

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