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Giants of Asia

The subspecies of Asian elephants are classified under 3 main categories; the endemic species to Sri Lanka is called Elephas maximus maximus, the subspecies of elephants across the Indian sub-peninsula and indo-china territory is called Elephas maximus indicus, and the third group across a specific area of Sumatra Island is called Elephas maximus sumatranus. There is no remarkable difference between the subspecies of the Asian elephant and African elephant.


Sumatran Elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus)

The Sumatran Elephant has been recorded as the smallest subspecies by size, but the largest mammal existing on the island of Sumatra. Males of the Sumatran elephant generally exhibit visible tusks, which don't tend to grow long. Tusks of female elephants are extremely short, usually being hidden under the upper lip.

Quick facts:

  • Diet - Herbivore
  • Life Span - 55 – 70 years
  • Weight - 3000kg – 5000kg
  • Size - Height 1.9m-2.7m (5ft-9ft)
  • Habitat - Broadleaf moist tropical forest
  • Range - Sumatra, Borneo and Indonesia
  • Conservation Status - Critically Endangered

The Sumatran elephant status was changed from “Endangered” to “Critically Endangered” in 2012, as half of its population was lost in just one generation—a decline that is largely due to habitat loss and as a result human-elephant conflict. Within the Asian elephants’ habitat, Sumatra experienced one of the highest rates of deforestation, and this has resulted in local extinction of elephants in key areas. Over two-thirds of its natural lowland forest has been razed in the past 25 years, making nearly 70 percent of the elephant’s habitat gone in one generation. Little is known about the mating and reproductive behavior of Sumatran elephants. These gentle giants breed at any time of the year, but was noted to have a peak period during the rainy season. Gestation period lasts for 19 - 21 months, yielding a single baby every 4 years! A newborn elephant usually weighs less than 90 kg, and during the first 2 years of its life, the calf feeds upon maternal milk. Weaning occurs at about 3 years old. The age of sexual maturity is 8 – 10 years old for females and 12 – 15 years old for males.


Indian Elephant (Elephas maximus indicus)

The Indian elephant is a nomadic giant, endemic to mainland Asia. It’s interesting to note that Indian elephants have actually been domesticated for hundreds of years, mainly for foresting and battle. There are many places across south-east Asia where Indian elephants are kept for tourists to ride, and are often treated quite badly. The ethical choice is always the best choice. All Asian elephants are well known for their immense strength and friendliness towards humans, and they don’t deserve to be treated irresponsibly.

Quick facts:

  • Diet - Herbivore
  • Life span - 55 – 70 years
  • Weight - 3500kg – 5000kg
  • Size - 2m – 3m (7ft – 10ft)
  • Habitats - Rainforest, Tropical woodlands and dry forests
  • Range - India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Nepal, Myanmar
  • Conservation Status - Endangered

The Indian elephant has a polygynous mating system and breed year-round. Before mating, males usually engage in aggressive fights, which occasionally result in serious injuries or even death. The winner joins an all-female group, driving away other males. A breeding pair remains together for about 3 weeks. Gestation period lasts for 22 months, yielding a single baby. During the birth, females of the herd surround the mother in order to protect her. The newborn baby starts feeding upon maternal milk and is able to stand within 2 hours after birth! Weaning occurs within 2 - 4 years, and female elephants are ready to mate at 10 years old.

Asian Elephants once roamed through much of Asia, just south of the Himalayas, extending west into China, and south to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. However, losses of habitat, hunting over hundreds of years, and human encroachment have significantly impacted on their numbers. Recent data shows less than 50,000 Asian Elephants surviving in the wild, and their population is restricted to isolated pockets of land. Due to the expanding human population in India, elephants and humans are often in conflict, particularly in food-producing areas.


Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus)

For those who are keen on elephant safaris in Sri Lanka, note that this little island has the highest density of elephants in Asia! If you’re thinking of tall, dark and handsome, the Sri Lankan elephant is the biggest and also the darkest of the Asian elephants, with patches of depigmentation on its ears, face, trunk and belly. Once found throughout the tear-shaped island at the bottom of India’s southern tip, these elephants are now being pushed into smaller areas as development activities clear forests and disrupt their ancient migratory routes.

Quick facts:

  • Diet - Herbivore
  • Life span - 55 – 65 years
  • Weight - 3500kg – 5500kg
  • Size - 3m – 3.5m (7ft – 11.5ft)
  • Habitats - Rainforest, Low land dry forest
  • Range - Sri Lanka
  • Conservation Status - Endangered

The Sri Lankan elephant population is currently dominant in the dry zone, east and southeast of Sri Lanka. The best place for an elephant safari Sri Lanka is where they are most present, namely Udawalawe National Park, Yala National Park, Lunugamvehera National Park, Wilpattu National Park and Minneriya National Park (famous for the elephant gathering Sri Lanka), but they also live outside protected areas. Human-elephant conflict has been on the rise due to conversion of elephant habitat to settlements and permanent cultivation. If you’re looking for tuskers in Sri Lanka, note that only 7% of males bear tusks. As stipulated in the 2011 elephant census by the Wildlife Conservation Department of Sri Lanka, only 2% of the total population are tuskers.


By Puwathara Jayawardena, Mahoora Senior Naturalist