About Asian Elephant

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Elephants’ Body

Asian elephants at adult age can grow to 3.5 meters high and weigh about 6,000 kilograms. The most distinct characteristic of elephants is the “trunk”. It is the elongated nose with numerous muscles and neurons that help elephants survive daily. Trunks are used for smelling, picking things, or even communicate through touching. In addition, another interesting characteristic of elephants is their “tusks” or a pair of elongated incisors. For Asian elephants, only some males have tusks while females did not have these elongated teeth.

Apart from their large bodies, trunks, and tusks, the ears of elephants are also interesting. The ears are not only for hearing, they are also used to reduce heat body heat and express their emotion. The happy elephants usually flap their ears slow and gently, especially when they are eating. However, elephants can be aggressive sometimes. They usually expand their ears, raising their trunks and tails before the attack by charging at the threatening object. Thus, observing wild elephants from a distance is safer than getting too close to them.

Elephant feeding grass happily
Herd of elephants calmly eat grasses in Khao Yai National Park, photograph by Budda Chotimanvijit.

Elephants’ Family

Elephants are social animals. Herd of elephants is led by the matriarch, the oldest and largest female elephant. The herd or family of elephants is composed of females of all ages and young male elephants. Male elephants have to rely on their families when they are young. However, when they grow up to maturity, they will be forced to go out from their herds by female members. That male elephant can join with the bachelor group of male elephants or live on its own depending on experience. This behavior will prevent inbreeding which help them to survive better in changing environments or diseases.

Elephant family
The elephant herd is composed of the matriarch, which is the oldest and largest female elephant, female elephants, and their young. Photograph by Budda Chotimanvijit.

When seeing the herd of elephants, scientists usually classify the age of elephants by their heights into 4 age classes: calves, juveniles, sub-adults, and adults. The figure below show age class of female and male Asian elephants

Image illustrated by Phakhawat Thaweepworadej.

Habitat and Diets

Asian elephants are found in various habitats or biome types, ranged from grassland, lowland forest, deciduous to tropical rainforest. They also found raiding or sheltering in the human agricultural areas, too, especially corn, cassava, rice, or para-rubber plantation. Apart from food, elephants also need water for drinking and, sometimes, relaxing from the heat.

The three needs of elephants’ survival are food, water, and salt lick. Researches found that elephants’ diets are composed of 200 plant species and parts depending on seasons and plant availability. They spent 16 hours a day only eating and drink up to 200 liters of water daily. In Thailand, elephants have an average of 2.17 kilometers daily movement length in the dry season while in the rainy season they have an average of 1.78 kilometers.

In addition, elephants also need salt licks as their mineral supplementary. The same as us, human that needs a vitamin for body maintenance.

elephants play in pond and dig saltlick
Left: Elephant herd relax in water pond, photograph by Guide Chai. Right: tusked elephant digging up salt lick, photograph by Kulpat Saralamba and Baimai.org

Importance to Ecosystem

Elephants are important for the ecosystem both physical and biological. First of all, elephants are mega-herbivores that control, consume, and balance a lot of primary producers in the food webs. They also are seed dispersers of some plant species e.g. Platymitra macrocarpa. They can be called “engineering species” that can change the physical structure of the ecosystem. Moreover, habitats that were changed by elephants also contributed to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions too.

The elephants are also known as “umbrella species” and “keystone species”. The presence of elephants benefits other wildlife. For example, elephant salt licks that were dug by elephants can be used by smaller animals such as gaur, hog, or deer. Thus, conserving elephants will help conserve other wildlife.

Population Status of Asian Elephants

According to the IUCN Red List, Asian elephants are listed in conservation status as “Endangered” species. This is the result of reduced population numbers in 13 countries. However, elephants are estimated to be 45,826-53,306 individuals distributed in protected areas of Asia. The country that has the highest elephant number is India. The image below shows the elephant distribution range and number in each country.

Asian elephant distribution
Asian elephant distribution

The main threat of Asian elephants is habitat loss and fragmentation. In the recent 15 years, Southeast Asia has 12.5% reduced forest habitats which resulted in water shortage and habitat loss for elephants. Unfortunately, this also pushes the elephants to come out from their forests and forage in human agricultural areas which are also known as human-elephant conflict (HEC) instead. Moreover, there are some reports of elephant poaching for their skins, tusks, and capture of young elephants.


Bergazhi, F., Longo, M., Ciais, P., Blake, S., Bretagnolle, F., Vieira, S., Scaranello, M., Scarascia-Mugnozza, G. & Doughty, C. 2019. Carbon stocks in central African forests enhanced by elephant disturbance. Nature Geoscience, 12, 725-729 (2019).
McConkey, K., Nathalang, A., Brockelman, W., Saralamba, C., Santon, J., Matmoon, U., Somnuk, R. & Srinoppawan, K. 2018. Different megafauna vary in their seed dispersal effectiveness of the megafaunal fruit Platymitra macrocarpa (Annonaceae). PLoS ONE, 13(7): e0198960.
Sukumar, R. 2003. The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behavior and Conservation. Oxford University Press, Inc. New York, USA.
จิรชัย อาคะจักร และ วุฒินันท์ พวงสาย. 2558. การศึกษาพฤติกรรมการกินพืชอาหารของช้างฝูงและช้างโทนในพื้นที่เขตรักษาพันธุ์สัตว์ป่าภูหลวง จังหวัดเลย. หน้า 401-447. ใน ผลงานวิจัย และรายงานความก้าวหน้างานวิจัย ประจำปี 2556-2558. กลุ่มงานวิจัยสัตว์ป่า สำนักอนุรักษ์สัตว์ป่า กรมอุทยานแห่งชาติ สัตว์ป่า และพันธุ์พืช. กรุงเทพฯ.
สมหญิง ทัฬหิกรณ์ และ ตะวัน สีทอง. 2554. เส้นทางการเคลื่อนที่ของโขลงช้างป่า พื้นที่เขตรักษาพันธุ์สัตว์ป่าภูหลวง. หน้า 183-187. ใน ผลงานวิจัย และรายงานความก้าวหน้างานวิจัย ประจำปี 2553. กลุ่มงานวิจัยสัตว์ป่า สำนักอนุรักษ์สัตว์ป่า กรมอุทยานแห่งชาติ สัตว์ป่า และพันธุ์พืช. กรุงเทพฯ.
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