Asian Elephant

Asian Elephant Photo
WCS has made the Asian elephant the focus of a regional conservation program.
©John Goodrich

Asian elephants were historically found throughout the continent, from West Asia along the Iranian coast into the Indian subcontinent, eastward into Southeast Asia and China at least as far as the Yangtze River. This giant mammal, formerly occurring over three and a half million square miles, is now extinct in West Asia, Java, and most of China, and survives in isolated pockets scattered across grasslands and tropical forests in thirteen Asian countries.

Asian elephants are herbivores that subsist on a diet of leaves, stems, fruit, grasses, and the bark of many trees and other plants. Much of the species’ habitat has been converted into farmland, so elephants frequently feed on domestic crops, creating serious conflict with humans. The survival of this endangered species depends on figuring out ways to cut down on these sometimes-deadly clashes and preserve adequate habitat for elephants.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameElephas maximus
  • Whereas both male and female African elephants have tusks, in Asian elephants, only the males have them. In some Asian countries, many males also lack tusks. 
  • Tusks are elongated incisors that grow throughout an elephant’s life and are used in feeding, in displays during social encounters, and as weapons.
  • Male Asian elephants can weigh over five tons; females typically weigh less than 3 tons.
  • Asian elephants can live up to 80 years in captivity.

Challenges

Illegal killing (poaching), loss of habitat, and other forms of conflict with humans are all major threats to Asia’s elephants and these threats are increasing as the continent’s human population continues to grow. Human-elephant conflict is one of the biggest challenges: As their habitats are transformed into agricultural areas, including oil palm plantations, Asian elephants increasingly feed on crops, which can lead to violent conflicts with humans. When elephants eat or trample crops, or injure or kill people, farmers are tempted to retaliate either by killing the elephants themselves or by helping poachers. Throughout Asia, hunters continue to target elephants, capitalizing on continued demand for their ivory tusks. The population of Asian elephants has declined significantly in recent decades, and the species is considered endangered, which means there is a very high risk of this animal’s extinction in the wild.

WCS Responds

WCS supports and promotes elephant conservation throughout Asia. We collaborate with the staff of Asian government agencies responsible for elephant conservation, helping to directly implement elephant surveys, human–elephant conflict reduction projects, and law enforcement initiatives. WCS is also a major partner of the CITES Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program in Asia.

WCS believes that a key tool for effecting conservation is to monitor the outcomes of interventions by studying trends in elephant population size. To this end, our scientists are on the ground, conducting surveys based on dung counts and camera traps, and pioneering new molecular biology techniques to estimate the size and status of elephant populations. The results of our work will improve the management of remaining elephant populations and their habitat, and help identify areas in which elephants are vulnerable to hunting, habitat degradation, and conflict with humans so that appropriate interventions can be taken.

WCS is also working with local communities throughout Southeast Asia to reduce human-elephant conflict. We are pioneering innovative, evidence-based approaches to crop protection. Recent success include the promotion of low-tech, community-based guarding methods in Sumatra that have successfully repelled more than 90 percent of attempted elephant raids in some areas.

From the Newsroom

Rare Footage from a Thai ForestDecember 16, 2011

Video camera traps in Thailand’s Western Forest Complex show amazing scenes of tigers, elephants, clouded leopards and other rare wildlife prowling about, alive and well. The footage offers a hopeful sign for conservationists, whose efforts to save the region’s wildlife are clearly paying off.

A Cyber Crackdown on the Wildlife TradeFebruary 17, 2011

A growing online black market is creating new demand for items like elephant ivory chopsticks, tiger claws and whiskers, and wallets made from clouded leopard skin. WCS’s Wildlife Crime Unit is working with Indonesian authorities to investigate the illegal Internet trade.

In Sumatra, Camera Traps "Capture" LessAugust 31, 2010

WCS scientists upgrade camera-trap research by developing huge virtual photo albums of species living in large landscapes.

A Valley of TigersAugust 4, 2010

The Myanmar government creates a Protected Tiger Area as large as Vermont in the country's northern forests. The Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve provides sanctuary to a wide range of species, from big cats to small birds, along with many rare plants.

New Park in Cambodia October 23, 2009

The forest haven for monkeys, tigers, and elephants also stores carbon and will help in the global fight against climate change. Key research conducted by WCS led to the park’s creation.

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