Asian Elephant

The Asian Elephant is a species of elephants distributed throughout the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It is one of the largest living creatures on the planet and is seen in numerous zoos across the world. Their population is declining rapidly mostly because of habitat loss and poaching for illegal trade. Poachers are known to hunt these animals for their skin, but mostly, for their tusks (teeth), which are highly expensive in the world ivory trade. The elephant plays an important role in the continent’s diverse cultures and religions.

Asian Elephant Scientific Classification

Animalia
Chordata
Mammalia
Proboscidea
Elephantidae
Elephas
E. maximus
Elephas maximus

Table Of Content

Scientific Classification

Asian Elephant

Animalia
Chordata
Mammalia
Proboscidea
Elephantidae
Elephas
E. maximus
Elephas maximus

Physical Description/Characteristics

Size: The average height of the males are around 2.75 m (9 feet) at the shoulder and, while females are shorter at about 2.4 m (7.9 feet).

Weight: An average male adult weighs approximately 4 tons (3628.74 kg), while the females are around 2.7 tons (2449.4 kg).

Skin: The entire body is wrinkled, rough, very thick, and usually grey, with an average thickness of 18 mm (0.71 inch).

Feet: All the four large and thick feet have nail-like structures, five on each forefoot, and four on the hinds.

Tusk: Used for digging, debarking, uprooting, as a weapon for defense, etc., the tusks can be up to 5 feet (1.5 m) in length, and weigh up to 104.5 lb (47.4 kg).

Trunk: Made up of approximately 60,000 muscles, the length can be 1.5 to 2 m (59 to 79 in).

Asian Elephant

Tail: Can be up to 148 cm long, with a tuft of black hair at the tip.

Sexual Dimorphism: Unlike the male elephants, the female Asian elephants usually lack tusks, and are also relatively shorter than their male counterparts. However, some male individuals may also lack the tusk, especially those from the Sri Lankan population.

Lifespan

On average, the Asian elephants live for 60 years in the wild, and 80 in captivity.

Distribution

While the historical range of Asian elephants was 9 million sq. km., the present geographic range is only 500,000 sq. km. – which is only 5% of the historical range. Presently, it is made of small discontinuous regions in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, from India and Nepal in the west to Borneo in the south.

Habitat

Asian elephants prefer green grasslands, tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, both dry and moist deciduous forests, dry thorn forests, as also, secondary and cultivated forests and scrublands.

Asian Elephant Habitat

Asian Elephants

Classification of Species

The Asian Elephant has three living subspecies, along with the nominate species:

  • Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus),
  • Borneo elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis),
  • Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), and,
  • Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus).

Apart from that, there were two more subspecies that are now considered extinct, viz., the Chinese elephant (Elephas maximus rubridens), and the Syrian elephant (Elephas maximus asurus).

Asian Elephant vs. African Elephant: Differences

  1. Asian elephants are relatively shorter in stature than their African counterparts.
  2. The skin of Asian elephants is more wrinkled than the African species, which is relatively smoother.
  3. The trunk-tip of the Asian elephant has one finger (projection), while the African ones have two.
  4. Asian elephants usually have five toenails, unlike the African species that usually possess four.
  5. The Asian elephant is more intelligent than the African elephant because the former is in more contact with humans.
  6. While the Asian species has two hemispherical bulges on the forehead, the forehead of the African species is flattened.
  7. The ears of the Asian elephants are smaller and somewhat low-hanging than those of the African species that have relatively erect, defined ears.

Asian Elephant Image

Asian Elephant Picture

Behavior

Asian elephants develop profound bonds with the family. They live in closely-packed matriarchal groups known as ‘herds’, which is made up of related females. A leader of a single herd is the oldest, and usually, the largest female, known as the ‘matriarch’.

A single group can have anything between 8 and 100 members, depending upon the size of a family and the terrain. Each elephant moves along with its own herd and drinks at least once a day. Hence, they are never far from a source of water.

These giant mammals display expressions and signs of joy, sadness, grief, anger, playfulness, etc., and are outstandingly intelligent. They can store memories for many years. By virtue of this memory, the group leader can remember the way leading to an earlier water source during the dry seasons and lead the heard for even tens of miles.

Like African elephants, the Asian elephants use their different levels of calls and sounds, called ‘trumpets’, to communicate between herd members, social groups and potential mates.

Diet

The herbivorous Asian elephants primarily consume grasses, bamboo, bark, leaves, roots, and various kinds of fruits. This species is especially known to raid crops in groups, mostly banana, and sugarcane grown by farmers in human habitats.

Mating and Reproduction

During the mating season, the male Asian elephants (bulls) will engage in fights with each other to win over an estrous female. However, instances of strong fights in such cases are very rare.

When they are between 10 and 20 years old, they undergo a yearly biological phenomenon called “musth”. During this period, the testosterone level rises to almost 100 times than during other times of the year. It is this secretion that makes the males aggressive.

After choosing a mate and sessions of successful intercourses, the female (cow) becomes pregnant. The gestation period is 18 to 22 months, after which, it gives birth to one single offspring (calf), or twins on very rare occasions.

Baby Asian Elephant

Picture of an Asian Elephant

Life Cycle of the Baby Asian Elephant

During birth, a young juvenile weighs about 100 kg (220 lb). Its trunk is devoid of muscle tone, and hence, uses the mouth to suckle the mother. In fact, the young elephants take a few months to gain control over its trunk.

After birth, a calf is taken care of and protected by the entire matriarchal herd. The male animals usually leave the family unit, or are chased away, when they are 12-15 years old. They go on to lead a solitary life, or make temporary bachelor groups with other males.

After giving birth to a baby, the females generally do not breed again as long as the calf is not weaned. This recess results in an interval of four to five years. Unlike the male animals, the female animals stay on with the group. Both the male and the female Asiatic elephants attain sexual maturity when they are around 17 years old.

Adaptations

    • Even though the calf becomes fully grown by the nineteenth month, the female is adapted to keep it in its womb for two to three more months to grow so that the baby gets developed enough to reach its mother to feed.
    • Because they live in groups, these mammals need to communicate faster. Recent discoveries suggest that they use infrasound to communicate over long distances by creating a sub-sonic rumble that travels over the ground much faster than sound can travel through the air.
    • While an individual Asian elephant has the ability to produce infrasound, other elephants can also receive the message. They have receptor cells in the sensitive skins of their trunks and feet. They are also able to distinguish between various such low amplitude sounds.
    • Like other elephant species, the trunk of this elephant is also an elongated adaptation of the nose (fused nose and upper lip) that the elephants use mostly for eating and handling things, and even while fighting (as defense).
  • The low-hanging ears of these elephants cover their neck and shoulder, thus helping them in heat loss.

Predators & Enemies

By virtue of their gigantic size, the adult Asian elephants practically do not have any natural predators. However, tigers have been recorded to attack and kill the baby elephants, especially when they are separated from their mothers, or are stranded from the group, or else, orphaned.

Population & Conservation Status

At present, a population of only 40,000 – 50,000 Asian elephants is left in the wild. Because of their declining population, the IUCN 3.1 has categorized them under their ‘EN’ (Endangered) species list.

Asian Elephant Ears

Asian Elephant Fact

Interesting Facts

    • Asian elephants can consume up to 150 kg (330 lb) of plant matter and 80 to 200 liters of water per day.
    • The largest ever Asian bull elephant recorded was shot by the Maharajah of Susang in the Garo Hills of Assam, India, back in 1924, which weighed 7 tons, and stood 11.3 feet tall.
    • This species has been recorded to feed on 112 different species of plants.
    • These elephants have been widely mentioned across the ancient Indian scriptures. In many parts of India, they are considered holy, and are often worshipped or venerated as the emblem of God, and are even used in many festivals in the ancient temples of southern India.
    • Like left-hander and right-hander humans, these elephants can also be left- and right-tusked.
    • These elephants spend almost 16 hours a day eating.
  • The popular Hindu God Ganesha, the son of God Shiva and Goddess Parvati, has the head of an Asian (Indian) elephant.

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