There are between 25,000 and 30,000 Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in the world today. These small populations, which are located throughout Southeast Asia, have numerous characteristics that distinguish them from their African counterparts (Loxodonta africana). Their ears are smaller and they are more upright – their back is round so the top of their head is the tallest point on their body. Their trunks, which serve numerous functions in the elephants’ daily lives, have only one finger-like extension on the end of their trunks, while their African cousins have two.
The Asian elephant prefers to roam grasslands that are dotted with trees and woody bushes. While roaming, they use their characteristic trunks to feed on trees and bushes, vocalize, bath, and even engage in fights with other elephants.
Did you know? Asian elephants’ ears keep them cool. Very thin blood vessels circulate near the skin, releasing heat while being cooled by the breezes created during gentle flapping.
In an ideal environment, Asian elephants can live to be as old as seventy. They are highly social and will travel in groups led by females. Males will leave these groups around the age of six or seven and will roam along until they are ready to mate. Elephant calves are dependent on their mothers and the females in their groups and may nurse for many years – leading to a generational gap of as many as four years.
Threats and Challenges
Asian elephants have long been threatened by hunting and poaching. Because males are the only ones who have tusks, poaching for elephant ivory means male populations are declining, which affects birth rates.
In recent decades habitat loss due to logging, agriculture, and population growth in the region has become an increasing threat. Land clearing has not only threatened the elephants’ routine but has also fragmented the Asian elephant populations, which makes eating, mating and migration increasingly difficult.
As elephants attempt to continue their usual patterns of eating and movement, they are coming into contact more and more often with human populations and farmers. These encounters lead to human both human and elephant deaths.
Although many Asian elephants live in protected areas in Southeast Asia, these reserves are rarely large enough to provide a complete habitat for these animals. Further cooperation with local communities and Southeast Asian governments is necessary to provide more effective habitats for Asian elephants.