status: Endangered, IUCN Endangered, ESA
range: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam
Description and biology
The Asian elephant, also known as the Indian elephant, is smaller than its relative, the African elephant. An average male Asian elephant weighs up to 11,500 pounds (5,220 kilograms) and stands 8.5 feet (2.6 meters) tall at its shoulder. Females of the species are slightly shorter in height and weigh up to 6,000 pounds (2,270 kilograms). The elephant has an arched back and a flat forehead. Its ears are smaller and its trunk shorter and smoother than those of the African elephant.
The Asian elephant's trunk, which is an extension of its nose and upper lip, has one fingerlike tip at the end that is used to grasp food and other items. Elephants also use their trunks for drinking, bathing, smelling, breathing, feeling, greeting, and communicating. All of the animals can create a variety of sounds with their trunks, from rumbling noises to the well-known trumpeting sound.
Unlike African elephants, only some male Asian elephants (and no females) have tusks, which are enlarged incisor teeth. Like its relative, the Asian elephant has four molar teeth, which are replaced up to six times during its lifetime. When the final set of teeth are worn out, the elephant can no longer chew its food, and it dies of starvation.
Asian elephants feed on more than 100 species of plants, including grasses, leaves, twigs, roots, and bark. The animals spend 17 to 18 hours foraging for the 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of food they require each day. They need large areas of forest habitat to supply this food, but they never travel far from a source of water, which they use daily for drinking and bathing.
Elephants have a close and complex social structure. Related females (mothers, daughters, sisters) and their young form herds headed by an older related female, called the matriarch. Older males live singly or together in a small group known as a bachelor herd. The relationships elephants form with each other last a lifetime, which is up to 70 years. When a member of a herd dies, the other members cover the dead body with leaves and twigs, then remain at the site for hours.
Males and females associate with each other only for mating and sometimes for feeding. After a gestation (pregnancy) period of 18 to 22 months, a female Asian elephant gives birth to a single calf. The calf nurses and remains dependent on its mother for three to four years.
Habitat and current distribution
Asian elephants once ranged from Iraq to southern China. They now occupy the forests and jungles of India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, and southeast Asia. Biologists (people who study living organisms) estimate that about 55,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild, occupying a habitat of only about 190,000 square miles (492,000 square kilometers). The largest population is found in India.
History and conservation measures
Humans have domesticated Asian elephants for centuries, using them to carry people and goods. The elephants have been used extensively in the timber industry, carrying items such as logs with their trunks.
Because many Asian elephants do not have tusks, they have not been hunted to supply the ivory trade as much as African elephants have (tusks are composed of ivory, a substance that has been used to make items ranging from jewelry to piano keys). Nevertheless, the Asian elephant faces greater threats to its existence than its African relative.
Deforestation, the loss of forests as they are cut down to produce timber or to make land available for agriculture, has had a devastating impact on Asian elephants. The animals need large forest areas to supply their daily food needs. Growing human populations in the region (in India alone, the human population has more than tripled in the twentieth century) have converted vast areas of forested land into farmland. As a result, much of the elephant's habitat has been reduced, and they are forced to live in pockets of forest surrounded by cultivated land. Seeking food, they often eat crops planted on farms that were once their feeding grounds. This brings them into greater conflict with humans.
Asian elephants are still used in the Asian timber industry. Unless protected areas for the animals and human populations stabilize in the region, the continued survival of Asian elephants is in jeopardy.