Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are smaller than their African savannah relatives (Loxodonta africana) and have many other physical features that distinguish them. The ears are smaller and the back is more rounded so that the crown of the head is the highest point of the body (2). One of the characteristic features of an elephant are the modified incisor teeth which are known as tusks, however, only some male Asian elephants have tusks, whilst females (cows) have 'tushes' instead, that are seldom visible (4). Elephants support their stocky body on stout, pillar-like legs, and the nose and upper lip are joined and elongated into a trunk (4). The trunk provides a wide variety of functions from feeding, vocalisation, bathing and fighting; those of the Asian elephant have only a single finger-like process on the base, whilst the African elephant has two (5). The thick, wrinkly skin covering the body is a greyish-brown colour and very dry (6).
Elephants are highly intelligent and long-lived animals; Asian elephants may live as long as 70 years, in captivity at least (6). They are extremely sociable and occur in groups of related females, led by the oldest female known as the 'matriarch'. Groups of Asian elephants average six to seven individuals, and will occasionally join with other groups to form herds; although these are more transient than those of African savannah elephants (2). Males leave their natal group when then reach sexual maturity at around six to seven years of age, after which time they are predominantly solitary (2). When males reach 20 years old they start coming into 'musth', an extreme state of arousal when levels of testosterone in the blood may increase 20 times (2). This state lasts about three weeks and during this time the individual will become aggressive and wander widely in search of females (2). Musth may cause males to fight for access to females and also increases their attractiveness to females. Cows only reach sexual maturity at ten years of age (7), and the interval between births may be as long as four years owing to the long gestation time and infant dependency (5). The single calf may suckle from other females in the group as well as their own mother (5).
Elephants use their dextrous trunk to pluck at grasses and pass them into their mouths; the average daily intake of food is 150 kilograms of vegetation a day (6). Grasses make up the mainstay of the Asian elephant's diet but scrub and bark are also eaten, and calves may eat their mothers dung to obtain nutrients (2). Consuming such large quantities of vegetation each day mean that Asian elephants substantially alter their ecosystem by creating new habitats for emergent vegetation. They also defecate up to 18 times per day, which has an important role in dispersing the seeds of many plant species (8). Where elephants occur near plantations they will readily feed on banana or rice crops. Asian elephants have had a close relationship with man over the centuries; they are still used to clear timber particularly in some of the more inaccessible forests of the continent, and play an important role in the religious and cultural history of the region (2).
This species once roamed through much of the Asian Continent south of the Himalayas, extending into China and south to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo (4). The Asian elephant is now restricted to isolated fragments in parts of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Laos People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia and Indonesia, but is now thought to be extinct in Pakistan (1). Three subspecies are currently recognised; in Sri Lanka (Elephas maximus maximus), Sumatra (E. m. sumatranus) and on the mainland of Asia (E. m. indicus) (2). Some scientists also place the Bornean elephant as a separate subspecies (E. m. borneensis) (4).
Asian elephants inhabit a wide range of grasslands and forest types, including scrub forest, rainforest and semi-cultivated forests, preferring areas that combine grass with low woody plants and trees (6).
Numbers of Asian elephants were decimated by habitat loss and hunting throughout their historical range. Vast tracts of land have been logged or simply cleared to accommodate the growing human population in the region (2). Such disturbance from infrastructure development can also cause increased stress and confusion amongst elephants (8). Elephant populations have become increasingly isolated in the fragmented habitat that remains, often coming into conflict with local farmers (7). Crops are damaged and lives lost; up to 300 people a year are killed by elephants in India (4), leading to retaliation on local elephants (9). Poaching for ivory is also a threat and because only males have tusks, populations can become extremely skewed towards females, thus affecting breeding rates (2).
The Asian elephant is protected from international trade by its listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), although illegal poaching remains a problem (4). Many elephants occur within protected reserves but these are often too small to accommodate them, leading to human-elephant conflict (4). Many elephant populations are also found along international borders where management may be weak, and a lack of trans-boundary cooperation also hinders elephant protection and management (8). The creation of wildlife corridors to extend reserve lands, together with the cessation of poaching are just some of the conservation steps needed to secure the future of the Asian elephant (9). The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched the Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS) in 1998 to address these issues, and this multifaceted conservation programme is also working with local people to reduce conflict with these magnificent animals (8).
To learn more about a Whitley Award-winning conservation project for this species, click here.
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