The elephant is Earth’s largest land animal, although the Asian elephant is slightly smaller than its African cousin. Asian elephants can be identified by their smaller, rounded ears. (An African elephant’s ears resemble the continent of Africa.). They live in forested regions of India and throughout Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. About a third of Asian elephants live in captivity.
The Asian elephant is classified as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Its population has declined by an estimated 50 percent over the past 75 years, and there are an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild.
Threats to wild Asian elephant populations include habitat loss from deforestation and agricultural development, as well as conflict with humans as elephants seek space and raid crops grown close to their forest habitats.
Most illegal ivory today comes from African elephants, with some 30,000 poached each year. Asian elephants, nonetheless, do still face the threat of poaching for the ivory trade. Only males have tusks, and females have been largely spared.
An elephant’s trunk is actually a long nose with many functions. It’s used for smelling, breathing, trumpeting, drinking, and grabbing things—especially a potential meal. Elephants are fond of water and enjoy showering by sucking water into their trunks and spraying it over their bodies. The trunk alone contains about 100,000 different muscles. Asian elephants have a fingerlike feature on the end of their trunk that they can use to grab small items. (African elephants have two.)
Elephants eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark—and they eat a lot of them. An adult elephant can consume up to 300 pounds of food in a single day. Elephants are crepuscular—they typically sleep during the day and are most active at dawn and dusk.
Elephants are widely viewed as one of Earth’s most intelligent animals. They have a highly evolved neocortex, similar to humans, great apes, and some dolphin species. They demonstrate a wide variety of behaviors associated with high intelligence, including compassion, mimicry, grief, altruism, use of tools, and self-awareness.
In the wild, female elephants, called cows, live in close-knit family herds with their young, but adult males, known as bulls, tend to roam on their own. Elephants have a longer pregnancy than any other mammal—almost 22 months.
Asian elephants in captivity
Almost a third of Asian elephants live in captivity, largely in Thailand, India, and Myanmar. Historically, elephants were used in the logging industry, as well as in agriculture and occasionally warfare. Increasingly, they’re used in the tourism industry, where many are trained to perform in shows, gives rides, and interact up-close with tourists.
Trunk: Used for smelling, breathing, trumpeting, drinking, showering, grabbing things
Length: up to 6.4 m
Height: 2 – 3.5 m
Habitat: Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests
Average lifespan: 60 years in the wild
Food: Roots, grasses, fruit, bark 150 kg a day
DNA data indicates that the closest living relatives of elephants are sea mammals, dugongs and manatees
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