Elephant species

There are two species of elephant – the African elephant and the Asian. The easy way to tell them apart? African elephants have large ears shaped like Africa – while the smaller ears of Asian elephants resemble the outline of India.

African elephants

African elephants are the world’s largest land mammals; males can grow up to four metres tall and weigh a whopping 7,000kg. Around 500,000-700,000 African elephants live across Sub-Saharan Africa and they are classified as vulnerable. Habitat loss and competition with humans for food and water are problems and elephants can be a danger to people and can trample crops and structures. The greatest threat by far, however, is poaching. The ivory trade became illegal internationally in 1989, but around 1,000 elephants were killed per year between 2006-2009. In 2011 alone, one in 12 African elephants was killed by a poacher, with the majority of the ivory being smuggled into China. A report from 2017 suggests there has been a steady decline in poaching since 2011, thanks to frontline enforcement and demand reduction efforts, but the killing of elephants for their tusks continues unabated.

There are two subspecies of African elephant: the larger bush or savannah elephant, seen across East and Southern Africa, and the smaller forest elephant which is more elusive and lives in the Central and West African jungles.

Asian elephants

There are three subspecies of Asian elephant: the Sri Lankan elephant (which is the largest); the Indian elephant, which is found in 11 countries across mainland Southeast Asia; and the Sumatran elephant, which lives on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and is sometimes called the pygmy elephant. The Asian elephant is classified as endangered; wild populations are hard to monitor but around 40,000-45,000 are believed to live across this region, meaning there is less than one Asian elephant for every ten African elephants. Sumatran elephants have recently been declared critically endangered. In some countries, captive elephants far outnumber wild elephants. The Asian elephant once spread as far as the Middle East, including Iraq and Syria, as well as Java; it is now extinct across all these regions and around half the remaining elephants are believed to live in India. Unlike the African elephant, female Asian elephants almost never have tusks, and only a small number of males grow them. They can eat 150kg of vegetation a day.

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Elephant conservation volunteering in Thailand

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Elephant facts

Both elephant species are highly intelligent, and have been compared to humans, apes and dolphins in the structure of their brains. They use tools, and appear to experience self-awareness, grief, compassion and cooperation. The desert-adapted elephants of Namibia and Mali have developed unusual physical and behavioural traits to help them survive in their harsh environments. Their long legs carry them much further than other elephants – up to 70km in a day – while their wide feet help them walk on sand. They can survive up to three days without drinking (elephants usually drink daily) and while most elephants are notoriously destructive around vegetation, desert elephants take great care not to harm any tree or bushes. Like humans, elephants are usually left or right tusked. You can spot which by seeing which tusk is more rounded and worn down; this is the 'master tusk'. Wild elephants have never been observed swaying rhythmically in the same way as captive elephants. Deprived of stimulation, the ability to exercise and frequently, contact with other elephants, captive elephants are the only ones who develop this disturbing behaviour.

Elephant links

The following nonprofit organisations all campaign for the welfare of elephants. Visit their websites for further information about elephants in the wild and in captivity, and what you can do to help.

Elephant Nature Park, in Thailand, is a sanctuary which acts as a 'retirement home' for retired and rescued elephants. It does not promote elephant riding or performances, and is considered a pioneer in the treatment of elephants. Watch Elephant Whisperer, a documentary about ENP's founder, Lek, here.

Elemotion raises awareness about the plight of the Asian elephant, and aims to improve the conditions for elephants living in captivity, either for tourism purposes, or in temples.

Elephant Family is the UK's biggest funder for Asian elephants. It exists to save the endangered Asian elephant from extinction in the wild, and is working to expose and stop elephants being captured from the wild to supply the tourism industry.

World Animal Protection, formerly known as WSPA, works with domesticated and wild animals. Specific elephant projects have included raising awareness of wildlife crimes including trafficking and poaching.

Born Free campaigns for the rights of African and Asian elephants. It focuses on the ivory trade in Africa, as well as human-wildlife conflict and captive elephants across Asia. It also supports Sri Lanka's Elephant Transit Home.

Action for Elephants UK is a campaigning and fundraising group with a focus on stopping the slaughter of wild elephants. It supports and raises funds for elephant groups and projects on the ground in Tanzania and Sri Lanka.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: akshay sant] [Intro: Shannon Litt] [African Bush Elephant: David Clode] [Asian Elephant: caahammedsha]